Widely regarded as one of America’s greatest actresses, Meryl Streep has turned in many memorable performances over the years. Choosing her best performance thus far is subjective of course, but her work as Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice, has to be near the top. Based on the novel by William Styron, it would be easy to classify Sophie’s Choice as a holocaust movie, which in a sense it is, but it’s really about Sophie’s struggle to make a life for herself, after she’s survived the atrocities of World War II.
No matter how many times I see it, one very powerful scene leaves me in tears. I’m not going to describe it, because to do so wouldn’t be fair to anyone who hasn’t had the chance to see Sophie’s Choice. If you’ve seen the film, I have no doubt you know the scene I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen the film, you’ll know the scene when it occurs. It’s that powerful.
Meryl Streep won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing a naïve, lost, girl and a worldly woman; a holocaust victim and a survivor. Speaking with a Polish accent, and learning to speak acceptable German, she seems to have become Sophie.
The film begins in Brooklyn, 1947, aspiring writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol) has just arrived, in hopes of jump-starting his career. He rents a modest ground floor apartment. His upstairs neighbors are a showy couple: Sophie Zawistowski (Streep) and Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline). Sophie is a Catholic Polish concentration camp survivor. Nathan, a Jew “saved” Sophie after she arrived in the States, and is now obsessed with the holocaust. Sophie is haunted by the ghosts of her past, while Nathan is plagued by inner demons.
While Meryl Streep is clearly the star of the film, both Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol are an essential reason why Sophie’s Choice works as well as it does. Nathan is utterly unpredictable; charming and sweet in one moment, as he toasts Stingo on the Brooklyn Bridge, but terrifying not long after, as he abuses and harasses Sophie. As difficult as it is to be on equal footing in a scene with Meryl Streep, Kline’s energy proves he was up to the task. It also helps that the two have a believable chemistry between each other.
Since Stingo acts as narrator for much of the film, this is really his story about his friends. However, since Sophie’s life is so compelling, it’s easy to forget his role in everything. Nonetheless, MacNicol plays him with a sweet naiveté, which leaves him crushed when he discovers just how cruel the real world can be. There are many times when MacNicol is asked to show frustration, sadness, or a mix of both with just a facial expression, and he succeeds wonderfully.
Cinematographer Néstor Almendros was nominated for an Academy Award and won the New York Critic’s Award for his work on Sophie’s Choice. Particularly stunning is the use of light to differentiate between the present and flashbacks. Whenever Sophie delves into her past the color is de-saturated so that it is neither black and white nor full color. There’s a brownish sheen over everything, which helps to remind us that this is a memory that brings Sophie pain, yet it’s one she can’t forget. In the present, the lighting is extremely bright; hope springs eternal. The house they live in is painted a shocking pink. Adding some poignancy to the story is Marvin Hamlisch’s score, made up of two different themes effectively entertwined throughout the film. The main theme is played by a small string ensemble, while the other is a evocative tune played on a recorder.
In director Alan J. Pakula’s audio commentary included on this Blu-ray he talks about cautiously approaching Meryl Streep just before shooting began with a change in the script that would require her to speak German. Her response was simple: “Get me a German teacher.” It is that attention to detail that makes Sophie’s Choice such a special film, and Meryl Streep’s commitment to excellence that makes her one of the finest working actresses today.
Shout! Factory brings Sophie’s Choice to Blu-ray in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Previous home video releases of the film have never looked great, and while Shout! has cleaned up some significant issues, there are still some problems. While much of the film looks far better than it has before, with accurate and well saturated colors, some of the interior scenes do have a slightly yellowish tint. There is also a scratch or two apparent on the print. Contrast has been improved from the prior DVD releases, and there is a nice layer of fine grain throughout. While this transfer isn’t perfect, it is an improvement over previous DVD releases.
Sophie’s Choice features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono mix which recreates the film’s original sound mix very well. Dialogue is clean and clear (with forced subtitles when various characters lapse into other languages). Marvin Hamlisch’s Oscar nominated score sounds good, with a full midrange. There are no age related issues.
English subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- New Roundtable Discussion with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and More (HD 45:41) ‘More’ refers to Boaty Boatright, Alan J. Pakula’s friend, one time agent and collaborator; Rose Styron, William’s widow; Hannah Pakula, Alan’s widow; and Don Laventhal, Pakula’s former Executive Assistant. This is a nice hosted by Boatwright and covering everything from casting to the novel’s writing and its adaptation to the screen.
- Audio Commentary with Alan J. Pakula: In this informative commentary, Pakula discusses working with the actors, his shooting style, goals for the film and much more. This commentary is highly recommended.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2:50)
- DVD of the film.