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Sophie is the survivor of Nazi concentration camps, who has found a reason to live in Nathan, a sparkling if unsteady American Jew obsessed with the Holocaust. They befriend Stingo, the movie's narrator, a young American writer new to New York City. But the happiness of Sophie and Nathan is endangered by her ghosts and his obsessions. Written by
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It was 1947, two years after the war, when I began my journey to what my father called the Sodom of the north, New York. They called me Stingo, which was the nick name I was known by in those days, if I was called anything at all.
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After enjoying Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in the recent ensemble comedy "A Prairie Home Companion," it was great to see their dramatic performances in "Sophie's Choice," the movie that made them famous. Here, they play Sophie and Nathan, a volatile young couple living in a Brooklyn boardinghouse in the summer of 1947. Their story, and eventually the story of the Polish Sophie's time in a concentration camp during World War II, is presented through the eyes of Stingo (Peter MacNichol), their young Southern neighbor.
Though other characters appear, especially during the flashbacks, "Sophie's Choice" is largely a three-person drama that relies on subtle interactions. Meryl Streep can always be counted on to give a nuanced performance, but here, especially, she raises the bar. Speaking three languages (including a very realistic portrayal of how foreigners can hesitate and hunt for words when speaking English), going from a haggard Auschwitz inmate to a pretty "blooming rose," consumed by guilt even during the madcap or romantic moments she shares with Nathan, she gives a brilliant performance of a very complex character. Her big scenes with Nazi officers are of course powerful, but I was equally struck by smaller moments: the heartbreaking little flashes of emotion that reveal Sophie's postwar wounds, or the extraordinary conversation she has with a Nazi's daughter.
Kline throws himself into the role of the "fatally glamorous" Nathan and also displays impressive range: he goes from charming to menacing. MacNichol is not up to these (admittedly high) standards. He can play the wide-eyed innocent, but he always seems somewhat thick-headed and lacking in passion. The movie would be more effective if Stingo seemed more truly changed by his experiences with Sophie and Nathan.
Despite Stingo's weakness as a character, I liked the unusual structure that reveals Sophie's story gradually, in flashbacks that draw closer and closer to the ultimate horror. The movie is nicely shot and some of the Brooklyn scenes look as though they actually could have come from a 1940s movie. But no director from the 1940s would have confronted the brutalities of the Holocaust so directly, and few actresses from any era could have given a performance like Streep's.
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