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Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Meryl Streep confirmed her status as the Queen of Accents with her Oscar-winning turn in this moving adaptation of William Styron’s best-selling novel.

Yet, for all the telling revelations about Sophie’s past, it is the interaction between the three central characters that gives the story its strength. It is strange, therefore, that Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol were overlooked by the Academy.

As Sophie Zawistowska, the beautiful, tragic Polish immigrant who survived Auschwitz to be tortured by her memories in post-war Brooklyn, Streep is positively mesmerising.

Except for its self-conscious voice-over narration, this movie prunes away the clutter of Styron’s novel, leaving a haunting film that leaves the audience wasted and weak from excitement and grief.

The time is 1947; Stingo, a twenty-two-year-old writer from rural Virginia, finds himself renting a room in a pink boarding house in Brooklyn.

Almost immediately, he is drawn to his exotic upstairs neighbours: Sophie, with her gossamer summer dresses, her sad, liquid eyes, and her trembling hands; and Nathan, her Jewish lover – a neurotic clown with a Jekyll and Hyde personality, sometimes charming and charismatic, other times violent and sadistic.

This unlikely trio become inseparable; despite the ominous warning cloud that hovers overhead, Stingo finds his new friends glamorous and fascinating, developing crushes on them both. And so begins a love story that changes Stingo’s life forever.

The deeper he sinks into his new friends’ lives, the more he learns about the mysteries and lies and secrets that enshroud them both.

In flashbacks that look like black and white newsreel footage, we learn the truth about Sophie – including her resistance work in Warsaw and the horrors of the concentration camp where she survived using her secretarial skills to work and flirt with Nazi commandant Rudolf Hess while her children were exterminated.

Nathan, who rescued her after she passed out from anaemia and hunger at the New York Public Library, has taken the place of Sophie’s Nazi torturers, punishing her for her consuming guilt in a sadomasochistic love affair. And poor, shattered Stingo, who loves them both, is the only one who knows the truth.

Kevin Kline, making his film debut, is a brooding, handsome Nathan, filling the spaces with energetic rages and sunny sweetness in a complex performance rich with colour and contrast.

But Meryl Streep is the swirling emotional vortex. Butchering the English language, struggling to forget the past, trying to pull the jagged shards of her life together, her work is so natural and full of unexpected insights that she makes each scene a marvellous adventure.

And in not one but three different languages (In the flashbacks, she works with the Polish actors in Polish and with the German actors in German).

Sophie Zawistowska
Meryl Streep
Kevin Kline
Peter MacNicol
Leslie Lapidus
Greta Turken
Rita Karin
Rudolf Hoess
Gunther Maria Halmer
Stephen D Newman
Morris Fink
Josh Mostel
English Teacher
David Wohl
Josef Sommer
Sophie as a Child
Michaela Karacic
Astrid Weinstein
Marcell Rosenblatt
Moishe Rosenblum
Moishe Rosenfeld

Alan J. Pakula