**/**** Image A+ Sound A
starring Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Pauline Collins, Cate Blanchett
written and directed by Bruce Beresford
by Walter Chaw In 1976, Polish composer Henryk Gorecki composed his stunning orchestral and choral piece Symphony No.3 Op.36 "Symfonia pie¶ni ¿a³osnych" ("Symphony for Sorrowful Souls"), a collection of smaller movements comprising, much like Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, varied texts both sacred and found. Among those sources used by Gorecki are a 15th-century lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery; a folk song from the Opole region; and, most specifically, a young prisoner's inscription on the wall of her cell in Zakopane's Gestapo prison.
It can be said that Bruce Beresford, returning to the examination of the fallout on the fringe of war that he detailed so effectively in 1980's Breaker Morant, has taken varied texts, sacred and found, and composed a film in Paradise Road that is meant to be both an evocation and a tribute to a lesser-known story from WWII. Taking its title from a hymn written by missionary Margaret Drummond (played in the film by Pauline Collins: Shirley Valentine), Paradise Road is the product of Beresford's interviews with surviving members of a Sumatran prison camp that was so remote, it took a full two weeks after VJ day for Allied forces to officially liberate them.
Utilizing a diary by Betty Jeffrey, and crediting several survivors as advisors, Beresford went so far as to use surviving musical manuscripts of the ladies' vocal orchestra in the film and on the soundtrack. Alas, it appears as though Beresford's personal investment in the film and dedication to relating as much of the hardships and horrors of internment in the blazing tropical heat has resulted in a film that is unfocused and sprawling while simultaneously suffering from a terminal predictability and odd disconnection. Moment of defiance follows moment of torture follows moment of defiance in an endless series of familiar causes and known effects traveled variously by every prisoner of war film from Bridge on the River Kwai to The Great Escape and on and on.
In 1942 at the decadent Hotel Raffles in Singapore, a collection of snooty upper crust British colonialists make dry comments and deprecating remarks about the invading Japanese. In keeping with the familiar irony of war films, it isn't five minutes before the artillery crunch of enemy mortars begins to shake the chandeliers. Evacuating women and children, it is also in keeping with the irony of the genre that a Red Cross ship full of innocents is strafed and sunk by the evil Japanese. Beresford, who seems to be at his best when focusing on individuals at a crossroads (Tender Mercies, Breaker Morant, Black Robe), makes the mistake in Paradise Road of crafting characters who are all a dazzling shade of white with the occasional dapple of grey. There is not so much an evolution of will as a testing of existing will, and with a lack of tension in the resiliency of the women, there is little in the way of overall tension nor, ultimately, point in their endless suffering. When the women band together to form a vocal orchestra to raise their spirits, it doesn't play so much as a moment of uplift and defiance (as with a similar scene when his soldiers whistle their support for Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai, or even when Cool Hand Luke is sung to by his peers) as it does a moment and an action that feel preordained and unsurprising.
Fresh off her Oscar for Fargo, Frances McDormand seems intensely uncomfortable in the role of a Russian Jew, while Pauline Collins, Juliana Marguiles, and Jennifer Ehle do their best with one-dimensional war-film constructs (the religious one of quiet faith, the brassy American, the girl pinning her hopes on her flyboy boyfriend). Shining through as she always must is Cate Blanchett as a young Australian woman who discovers a rich vein of courage in spite of insufferable conditions. Blanchett's face is as clear and open as a spring morning, each expression and gesture carefully balanced with her character's internal struggle. Though her Susan Macarthy is no more fleshed in the screenplay than any other, Blanchett is consistently able to take a mediocre opportunity (see: The Gift) and make of it something of a showcase for herself and for how much better the film could have been had it only focused on her.
Glenn Close is fine, if mildly miscast as a British music teacher, impressing the most with a lack of ego in looking her worst under extreme conditions. The depiction of the women, blistered, sun-burnt, and straggly, is a welcome nod to realism. Still, the POW camp seems strangely sanitary, with even the execution of a woman by gasoline and match tastefully edited, brief, and followed quickly by the requisite act of defiance, a secret burial ceremony in the middle of a lush and verdant jungle. The lack of evolution in the characters, in other words, is echoed by the lack of real menace in the camp. The only thing that is satisfactorily captured by Beresford, ironically, is the drudgery and extreme predictability of the daily grind.
Ultimately, even though Beresford has done something admirable in collecting surviving testimonials and manuscripts, his Paradise Road is one fraught with familiar dips, familiar rises, and landmarks we have marked too many times. It's worth a look for Blanchett's marvelous performance, for a couple of lovely vocal pieces (including my favorite bit of Dvorak), and for the luxuriant jungle setting, but as a testimonial of the ways war changes those caught up in its wake, Paradise Road just falls flat.
The Fox DVD presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer (2.35:1) that takes full advantage of the vibrant jungle of Sumatra. A scene late in the film when a Japanese guard takes Close into the forest to sing to her as the camera draws back beneath a Banyon tree is, here, in a word, breathtaking. The Dolby 5.1 surround sound is marvelously utilized during the opening scenes in 1942 Singapore, and again during the Japanese Zero dive bomb/strafe attack of the Red Cross boat. The choral sequences, obviously, benefit greatly from the digital clarity. The DVD is otherwise short on features, with only a theatrical trailer to appease the curious. Originally published: May 13, 2001.