Director/Screenwriter: Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Meryl Streep, Peter MacNicol, Kevin Kline, Rita Karin, Stephen D. Newman
Genres: Drama, War, Romance
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Release Dates: 3/4/83 (Theatres); 5/7/15 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78%
Oscars: Won–Leading Actress (Streep); Nominated–Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Original Score
Where to Watch: HBO
Sophie’s Choice is primarily known for Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance, deemed by many to be one of the best performances by any actor (male or female) of all time. I believed critics and viewers, but I was skeptical that it could top who I’d currently ranked as my #1 Best Actress Oscar winner of all time (that I’d seen): Charlize Theron in Monster. I was wrong, and after finishing Sophie’s Choice, I immediately knew that I’d just witnessed one of the best acting performances of all time.
I knew next to nothing about the film, aside from Streep’s unbelievably real performance. I was pleasantly surprised to see both Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol as Sophie’s lovers, friends, and confidants. While Streep dominates them all, both actors have the change to shine, although Oscar winner Kline (A Fish Called Wanda) is much showier in his role. His character, with all his eccentricity and bipolar-like tendencies, is a fascinating foil to MacNicol — who’s fairly relaxed and more introverted. However, while we end up learning more about Kline’s character, we still know little about MacNicol’s, despite the fact that he gives voice-over. His narration seems odd at first, as Sophie is the clear main character here, but by the end this starts to make sense more: while we see flashbacks to Sophie’s life in Poland and in Auschwitz, we’re mainly observing her through MacNicol’s eyes.
Pakula’s script and direction are perfectly fine, and the camera deliberately lingers on Streep’s face at times, especially during the heavier, more emotional moments. And, to call what Streep does “acting” essentially belittles what she has accomplished: fully inhabiting the person of the Polish concentration camp survivor who is hiding terrible secrets. She could have merely cried in every scene and been loud and showy, which many actors will tend to do and get applauded for this. Instead, she exhibits the exact right emotion for every moment, every scene. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s not. It also helps that Streep’s Polish accent is superb; most actors who attempt these types of accents don’t succeed. She also speaks Polish and German with ease, thereby lifting her performance even more (if at all possible).
Streep, MacNicol, and Kline all have excellent chemistry together, although it’s unclear whether they were all just friends or something more. Even when the mood seems more depressing than needed, the commitment of the three actors elevates the material. The film is also gorgeously shot, both in the present-day scenes and in flashbacks. Speaking of the latter, Pakula doesn’t hold anything back when depicting life during the Holocaust, and presenting Nazis and their accomplices as the villains that they are. I also appreciated that, instead of having actors speak in English with German and other accents, everyone spoke the languages that they would have been speaking.
When Sophie’s choice — the big choice — is finally revealed, it’s beyond heartbreaking. I can understand why Streep was apparently so emotionally drained while filming that scene that not only was it done in one take, but she was uncomfortable watching that scene when the film was released. I could feel her emotions through the screen, something that only an actress of her caliber could convey.