Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Paradise Road Review

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit up front that I wept at Paradise Road (Fox Searchlight, R). Based on real events, Bruce Beresford's old-fashioned war movie tells the story of a group of British and Dutch women who were captured by the Japanese while fleeing occupied Singapore during World War II and imprisoned in Sumatra for over three and a half years. The women -- distrustful of one another at first in the jangle of languages, cultures, and classes competing under conditions of severe hardship -- find strength and comfort by organizing a ''vocal orchestra'' to perform sophisticated arrangements of classical music.

In fact, I wept like a fool from the instant Glenn Close, beaming with glittering Glenn-y eyes as Adrienne Pargiter, the group's inspiring choir conductor, raises her eloquent hands to lead the first bars of the largo movement of Antonin Dvorak's famous From the New World Symphony. (Actual sheet music survives, and the arrangements we hear are authentic.) And I more or less blubbered through the end of the saga, when the Japanese surrender, and those who survived the horrible ordeal wring one final sob (and do a rendition of ''Danny Boy'') for those who didn't.

But I know me: I'm a sucker for Dvorak and for the nobility of group music making. I love movies about women defying misery with small, sisterly gestures and brave, tear-stained faces. I'm moved by war movies, especially those dramatizing the particular, jarring horror of real 20th-century conflicts. I'm remembering Playing for Time and Jane Alexander's turn as a concentration-camp music maestra.

And I'd be dishonest if I didn't add that I hated myself in the morning -- not for crying (that's a plus) but for falling so cheaply for stereotype over character development, for cliche over freshness, and for sentiment over emotion, just as Bruce Beresford hoped I would.

Beresford -- the director of Driving Miss Daisy and Crimes of the Heart (as well as, don't forget, Sharon Stone's recent prison folly, Last Dance) -- is known for his female-centric ensemble work. And the pleasure the impressive, talented cast take in re-creating Sumatra in Malaysia is palpable. As one of the leaders of the camp, Adrienne, an English tea planter's wife, is tortured -- yet Close, in her odd, beatif, way, has rarely looked fitter or happier. The endearing Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine and, to my mind, forever Sarah the saucy parlormaid of TV's Upstairs, Downstairs) is particularly affecting as a warm, no-nonsense missionary who writes the musical arrangements and becomes Adrienne's close friend. ER's Julianna Margulies plays the lone American woman in the mix; BackBeat's Jennifer Ehle, who sparkled in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, is a beautiful English rose.

But that's the point: Every character can be written off with a shorthand description, since none strays beyond a sketch. There's Dutch actress Johanna Ter Steege as a spirited nun; Australian Cate Blanchett as a young nurse who discovers her own backbone; formidable and amusing English veteran Elizabeth Spriggs (of Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility) as the fussy, snobby woman with a poodle; Stan Egi as the camp's brutal, screaming captain (it turns out, Mama, he wants to sing, too!); Clyde Kusatsu as the evil chief of secret police; etc.

And a separate breath must be taken for Fargo's Oscar winner Frances McDormand, doing God knows what in the bizarre role of the camp's resident German Jewish ironist. This crafty inmate speaks in a broad caricature of a Cherman accent and actually pulls gold from the teeth of corpses, Nazi-style, to trade for needed medical supplies. The teeth are life!

Paradise Road has the stiff-if-quivering-upper-lip quality of a British Empire production made to cheer on the lads and buck up the loved ones back home; the Australian Beresford displays the pride of an imperialist, wagering the pluck of resourceful white women against the nefarious schemes of wily foreigners any day. (Their savage breasts soothed during one concert, the Japanese captors actually lay down their arms.)

Was the women's vocal orchestra of Sumatra really what saved the lives of the survivors and rehabilitated their enemies -- a commodity as crucial as food for the starving and quinine for those dying of malaria? Hard to say. But the music is crucial to Paradise Road -- a path that leads, ultimately, to the sight of the haggard, grimy, wet faces of the living, embracing at news of the war's end, accompanied by heavenly sounds. Beresford, who'd like to teach the world to sing, makes the moment as moving as a Coca-Cola jingle. It's not the real thing, but it's effective. C+

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