Though capable of cinematic beauty via Néstor Almendros’s cinematography, Sophie’s Choice, adapted from the novel by William Styron, is ultimately a terrible film, particularly because writer-director Alan J. Pakula commits an unforgivable, foundational sin. He uses Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a 22-year-old Southerner moving to Brooklyn in 1947 to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist, as the means to exploit the unthinkable brutality faced by Sophie (Meryl Streep), a Polish-Catholic woman mistaken by Nazis during the war for a Jew and thrown into a concentration camp. Sophie’s life was eventually spared, allowing her to emigrate to Brooklyn where she’s rescued by Nathan (Kevin Kline). Although the title takes Sophie’s name, it’s Stingo that inexplicably provides the film’s core—inexplicable because he’s such a goof, a schlemiel with a disingenuous, aw-shucks sense of self-worth that’s, supposedly, a mask for a burgeoning, perceptive writer. Yet, he’s not a thinker or a philosopher; at least, Pakula not once hints at brilliance forming within, instead relying on meaningless shots of Stingo pecking away at his typewriter, or calling on an absolutely trite and insufferable voiceover from Stingo as an older man to provide what was likely meant to be wisdom.
Instead, Stingo is a voyeur, but without any capacity to recapitulate what he sees and experiences as anything other than more looking; he leers at Sophie on the steps with a creepy sort of smile. Later, he meets Leslie (Greta Turken), whose obsession with Wilhelm Reich confuses Stingo when she won’t sleep with him, as he says, in voiceover, “She could say fuck, but she could not do it.” This odd sequence is presumably meant to provide levity to Pakula’s impending torment storm, but instead it merely reinforces Stingo’s scopophilic impotence and, by extension, Pakula’s own allegiance to offering Stingo as an emblem for émigré experience. That is, Pakula equates youthful awakening with geographic displacement, as Stingo’s infatuation with Sophie derives from shared occupation of the nebulous spaces within and surrounding their Brooklyn neighborhood. Almendros’s cinematography, in this regard, is unquestionably the film’s apex; he changes between filters of inside/outside, past/present with an excellent eye for texture and composition, which is no better epitomized than in several, magnificent low-angle shots of the Brooklyn Bridge, one of which serves as the film’s coda.
Stingo’s voyeurism gradually shifts to an explication of Sophie’s lingering pain and it’s in this transition that Pakula’s misgivings are most glaringly laid bare. Two sequences in particular are relevant, each related through flashback by Sophie in a tight, blue-tinged, almost monochromatic close-up, positioned as a direct address to the camera. Almendros’s lighting is impeccable here, but Pakula’s manipulation begins to take hold, no more so than in a tasteless reveal that the non-diegetic flute music from the opening credits is given diegetic meaning once Sophie’s daughter Eva plays the tune on her flute while aboard a train. At this point, one must remember that Stingo’s gaze receives Sophie’s via her memory and the viewer is allowed similar access to past catastrophe because of Pakula’s insistent alignment with Stingo. Therefore, the flute music symbolizes Pakula’s transgression, because he treats trauma as punchline and a means to enact a formal shift with little regard for the ethics of that shift, just as Stingo is proffered as an unthinking stand-in for bourgeois acculturation.
The film’s most famous sequence, in which Sophie must choose which of her two children to hand over to the Nazis, is similarly played for its gruesome bottom line, while also providing Streep the chance to exhibit the psychological realism so valued by contemporary aesthetic standards of taste (and Oscar voters). Sophie queries to a sneering Nazi: “You mean I have to choose?” By invoking the titular word, Pakula might as well be ringing the “significance” bell, as “choice” is boiled down to a simplistic binary of determinism/free will, with the matching, tight close-up on Streep, her agape, quivering mouth, the equivalent of a money shot. Moreover, if the unnamed Nazi here doesn’t achieve the hysterical levels of evil later attributed to Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, it’s only because Pakula can’t stay within the camps for the entire film. He operates on a similar level of bathetic banality, especially in the unintentional alignment of Stingo’s naïve sex obsessions with his own proclivity for burrowing into devastation as a means to mine emotional exploitation rather than engage causal examination.
If there’s a reason to see Sophie’s Choice, it’s for Néstor Almendros excellent cinematography and Shout! Factory has done a respectable job of keeping his vision intact with this new Blu-ray. Exterior shots vibrate with richly saturated colors, but there’s a fine level of grain to suggest little digital tampering has taken place. Interiors, however, especially in flashback scenes, are less crisp, with some of the darker scenes even lacking focus and edge enhancement throughout. The 2.0 sound mix is clear and surprisingly forceful at times, perhaps even too much so, as Marvin Hamlisch’s score is prone to mild distortion at times. Whispered dialogue, the agonizing voiceover, and those lingering screams from Sophie’s daughter, however, are impressively mixed and layered.
Boaty Boatwright leads a discussion with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, among others, in a 45-minute roundtable discussion that covers expected and familiar territory. Topics such as Alan Pakula’s process in adapting William Styron’s novel, various experiences working with Pakula and Almendros, the shooting schedule, and the film’s original five-hour cut are discussed, though given all involved and their reverence for the film, those seeking more thought-provoking discussion will have to look elsewhere. More illuminating is a commentary by Pakula, in which he says the film is "as much a labor of love for me as any film I’ve ever done." Pakula enjoys comparing his film to Joyce (a bizarre statement), particularly as it pertains to Stingo, whom Pakula cites as his main impetus for adapting the novel. Of Stingo, Pakula says, "Even in middle-age, I was Stingo too," an admission which helps further an argument as to why the film is fundamentally flawed. Finally, the film’s trailer has been included, though given its full-frame presentation, it’s most likely the one that accompanied VHS releases of the film, rather than the one shown in theaters.
A solid packaging from Shout! Factory, but Sophie’s Choice isn’t resonant as a tale of an aspiring writer, a Holocaust history, or trauma parable. Sophie had it right the first time: Stinko.