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This is one of the best American films of the 1980's. It is based on
the true story of the wife of the Allegheny County Jail warden, Kate
Soffel (Diane Keaton) who falls in love with a sexually alluring
working class inmate, Ed Biddle (Mel Gibosn) in turn of the century
Pittsburgh and plots to help him and his brother, Jack (Matthew Modine)
escape. Director Gillian Armstrong and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner
brilliantly decided to deal with the story in an elliptical and
indirect way. We aren't telegraphed anything. We don't know if the
Biddle's are innocent. We don't really understand why Kate falls in
love with Ed. We aren't directly told why Kate is so disappointed in
her life. The filmmakers takes this personal story and turns it into a
progressive feminist mood poem. It is extraordinary to see a post
1970's American film this complex and this progressive.
Diane Keaton gives a remarkably complex and nuanced performance. The film is almost unimaginable with her in the leading role. Early in the film she communicates the torment and longing of Kate in a way that warrants comparisons with the greatest acting of the silent cinema. We see the depression and desperation in Kate's face in a way that rivals Maria Falconetti in Dryer's THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and Lilian Gish in Victor Sjöström's THE WIND and D.W. Griffith's BROKEN BLOSSOM'S. One of the remarkably subversive aspects of the film is its relationship to Kate's Christianity (which becomes particularly pointed watched in the contemporary context and thinking about Mel Gibson's PASSION OF THE Christ fundamentalism). She is a bit scary creeping about the prison trying to sell doomed men on a faith that will set them free. The suggestion is that it is this same faith, or more precisely the way Christianity is used as a structuring device of patriarchy, that has trapped Kate into her own life sentence. When she becomes aroused by Ed everything shifts, she looks different, some kind of remarkable radiance shines forth from Keaton's face. Her bible lessons become a pretext for sexual release. She literally makes love to Ed through the bars with his brother nearby, which adds a remarkable charge of voyeurism to the proceedings.
Mel Gibson has never been photographed more sensually then in this film. There is a scene late in the film, in which, he is lying in bed with the sunlight playing on his face that in which his beauty is almost angelic. He's photographed and contextualized the way male directors have often shot young classically beautiful women (think of Julie Christie in David Lean's Dr. ZHIVAGO, Joseph Losey's THE GO BETWEEN, or Donald Cammell's DEMONSEED or Faye Dunaway in Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN or Sydney Pollock's 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR). Armstong also allows Gibson's sense of humor to peek out to suggest layers to this character. We never totally trust Ed, yet we root for him or at least root for Kate's vision of him.
The cinematography by Russell Boyd is exceptionally original and the production design emphasizes the grimy oppressive nature of an industrial town. this was actually a critique of the film at the time of its release. It was too dark, mainstream reviewers said. Well actually its historically accurate. Pittsburgh was so soot filled and grimy that the street lights had to stay on all day long! This is the great environmental tragedy of the industrial revolution. Armstrong uses this look for strong dramatic effect and creates a kind of mood poem here that reminds me of the best work of Antonioni and of Werner Herzog remarkable NOSFERATU. Like in that great film we can never quiet situate ourselves, the oppressive dim look of the film suggests we might be in a kind of waking nightmare. Is the environment part of Kate's psychic and physical affliction? Who could be happy or healthy living in this kind of relentlessly dismal environ? When we finally leave Pittsburgh Boyd and Armstrong present us with some of the most lovingly photographed images of sun and snow in American cinema. The viewer so ready for these brighter images that they alter our the way we connect to the story.
That this film was neither a critical nor a commercial success is a tragedy for the contemporary Hollywood cinema. Its failure became one of the many excuses for the overwhelming turn to the banal cookie cutter cinema that Hollywood is known for today. One hopes that cinephiles everywhere will reclaim ambitious films like MRS. SOFFEL as an example
The first five or ten minutes didn't impress me. But as the movie went on, I found myself more and more intrigued by it. It's much darker than I thought it would be, but still it is one of the most beautiful love stories I ever saw. I don't understand why this is one of the least noticed Mel Gibson movies, because in my opinion this is one of his best performances. He really shows you what his character Ed is: angry, desperate, and confused. Diane Keaton is great too. If you get a chance to see this, do it. It's sadly underrated.
"Mrs. Soffel" is a wonderful movie I have seen many times, but the last
viewing was so many years ago I'm watching it right now on TCM.
I'm a sucker for movies whose main characters suddenly, inexplicably make a decision which goes against everything they seem to embody, or at least that which the viewer has come to know about them. That Kate Soffel's story is a true one makes it all the more intriguing.
In early 20th-century America, the lot of a wife, even that of a well-to-do-man and mother to lovely children, was a lonely, empty, barren existence. In a wealthy household with servants, there was very little meaningful work for the mistress of the house to do every day.
Even the layers upon layers of clothes Victorian women wore served no practical purpose except to restrict movement and render their wearers merely decorative. Express your opinions and you got packed off to visit relatives in hopes that maybe the change of scenery would "do you good." There were millions of avenues for creative expression and enterprise that were simply cut off for women.
Good minds went to waste. Souls shriveled and died.
Kate Soffel (Diane Keaton) was the wife of a prison warden in Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century. She served as something of a missionary to the prisoners, giving them Bibles, holding prayer readings with them and hoping to guide them towards remorse and redemption. She never expects to fall in love with one of the inmates. But fall she does, for the charming Ed Biddle (Mel Gibson), who along with his brother Jack, (Matthew Modine) are in jail on murder charges.
Kate is suffocating; the Biddles are desperate. Prone to fits of melancholy and depression, plagued with fears that she is not a good mother and that she has failed her husband -- whom she has come to learn she really doesn't know very well -- Kate, like so many women of her era, is desperate for something to end the tedium, the frustration, the despair. She is a perfect candidate for the dangerous voyage she helps plan and sets out on with the Biddle brothers.
"Mrs. Soffel" raises many ethical and moral issues, among them the divergent path Kate takes from her religious teachings, and the Biddle brothers' guilt or innocence. It can be appreciated equally on one or more levels, but it remains a remarkably restrained depiction of emotions and passion that are anything but.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I can't say that I am entirely familiar with the events portrayed in Mrs.
Soffel beyond what I read about it in William Coles' novel, `Another Kind of
Monday' (except that it was based on a book called `The Biddle Boys and Mrs.
Soffel,' by a man named Arthur Forrest, who wrote for small, trashy
magazines around the turn of the century, similar to The National Enquirer,
magazines which were not very accurate but were packed with information), so
I'm not entirely sure how much of the film is a presentation of true events
and how much was glamorized for the pulp magazines and glamorized again for
the movie. What I do know is that the movie is based on true events, and as
a loose adaptation of reality, I think it succeeds pretty well.
Mrs. Soffel is the wife of a prison warden who is supervising the sensational case of the Biddle boys, two disarmingly attractive and charming boys who are sentenced to hang for a murder that they claim to have never committed and that the movie never tells us for sure whether they did or not. Since she takes on the task of being the divine counsel of the boys while on Death Row (meaning she reads certain Bible verses to them to keep them calm), she is in close contact with them for an extended period of time and, as is to be expected with a criminal good looking enough to be portrayed by Mel Gibson, she falls in love with one of them. This is the foundation of the whole premise of the movie, but if you're already wondering how a God-loving wife of a prison warden could possibly fall in love with a convicted murderer on Death Row, let me just transcribe here a poem that he wrote for her while in prison:
`Just a little violet from across the way
Came to cheer a prisoner gimmeattahere in his cell one day.
Just a little gimmeattahere flower sent be a loving hand,
As a kindly meaning that true hearts gimmeattahere understand.
God has smiled gimmeattahere upon it and the sender gimmeattahere fair,
And soon that little gimmeattahere token, wrapped in hand so gimmeattahere neat,
Rests quietly in the gimmeattahere grave,
For which a heart that's true gimmeattahere does beat.'
Very sweet, and since it's Mel Gibson, this honest woman doesn't realize or even consider the possibility that he wrote the poem during a sudden abundance of free time in an effort to get close to her and inspire her to help them escape.
I have a particular fondness for movies that show people cleverly escaping from prison (and/or bravely enduring it, both of which Paul Newman does in Cool Hand Luke and, even better, Papillon), so I though the idea of sawing through the prison bars and holding them in place with candle wax was brilliant, and the escape was wonderfully pulled off. There are a lot of people who criticize the film for doing little more than making a comment on women's roles at the turn of the century (and as many others who criticize it for almost making such a comment and then not making a real commitment to any specific point of view). I don't really think that something like this should be held against the movie, because it makes you THINK about women's roles at the turn of the century. There is a very distinct value to movies that make just enough of a statement about something in order to get you to think about it and come to your own conclusion.
Kate Soffel, the title character, is stuck in a marriage to a man with whom she is not necessarily unhappy as much as she just disagrees with his moral character, convinced that he does not take the content of his profession seriously enough beyond just the fulfillment of his duties. She knows that she is a subordinate to him, which is why, after she protests the hanging of the Biddle Boys (this is just a little nickname that I made up for them ) he suggests that she go away for a while to clear her head, to which she responds, `Go ahead and write to Elsie, or your mother, or wherever you want to send me.' Later, there is a fire in Ed Biddle's cell (the one she falls in love with), and Mrs. Soffel screams for the guards to come, and they drag him out of his cell barely saving his life. As they are dragging him away to the infirmary, Ed chokes to Mrs. Soffel, `You should have let me die,' to which she responds, `I won't.'
She's already made up her mind about what she's going to do.
The escape itself is wonderfully entertaining, even though clearly contrived. It's more than a little convenient that the prison is absolutely silent (apparently the Biddle Boys are the only prisoners in the entire place), and there is a nice booming sound anytime an approaching guard enters for a periodic walkthrough, slamming a heavy steel door on his way in and on his way out. They might as well have had a bell for the guard to ring to warn them anytime he was coming. He also runs his nightstick across the bars as he passes through one time (interrupting Ed's and Jack's frantic sawing), foreshadowing a discovery of their plan, although such a discovery never happens. But things like this do not take away much from the movie as a whole, because the important scenes work so well.
(spoilers) Just before the escape, Ed suggests to Mrs. Soffel that it might be helpful to them if they had guns, and she gets angry, refusing immediately to the request and, as she says, `You think you can sweet-talk me into anything!' forgetting that she is saying this to a prisoner through bars that he and his brother have been able to saw through, using saws that she provided for each of them. Evidently he CAN sweet-talk her into anything! It is also a wonderful scene when the warden is faced with the task of explaining where his wife is at a press conference concerning the escape of the Biddles.
Again, back to the fact that the movie doesn't take an immediately discernable standpoint on women's issues, it at the very least does not present flat characters. There is a scene after the escape where the movie introduces the possibility that she doesn't after all, want to go with them. Ed jumps off the train that they have hitched a ride on, and Mrs. Soffel is hesitant, first telling Jack to go first (hinting that she may just stay on the train and be rid of them forever once he jumps), but ultimately she goes with them, accepting her fate as she leaps from the moving train.
If the movie does not make a specific comment on women's role at the turn of the century, it most certainly does make a strong comment about the flaws of law enforcement. The film, as is to be expected, ends with the Biddles lying in snow soaked in their own blood and Mrs. Soffel in prison, but as the Biddles lie there dying, one of the men goes to fire the final shot to kill Ed but is stopped by a fellow officer, who puts his hand on the man's arm and says, `Leave him be, he can't hurt nobody no more.' Given the fact that the Biddles are likely innocent, the slow-motion panning shot of all of the heavily armed men who just gunned down a couple of young brothers fleeing for their freedom and their very lives makes you wonder who is really hurting who.
As a side note, I would also like to mention that this is one of those extremely valuable films that Mel Gibson made before the Lethal Weapon series turned him into a Rambo-style Hollywood badass, doomed to make one goofy action film after another, which vainly tries to capture the success of the excellent Lethal Weapon movies (which was, as all series' are, a diminishing one from the first film, although the rate of descent was not as precipitous as many other series I've seen, like Austin Powers) and, to a lesser extent, the Mad Max films. Another of his meaningful early films to check out is the staggering anti-war film Gallipoli, which stands with Mrs. Soffel as one of the most effective dramas he's ever made. Bravo.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Kate Soffel, the wife of the Allegheny County jail warden, is a woman
whose married life appears to be lacking the warmth and love that might
have brought her together with Peter Soffel, in the first place. When
we first meet her, she appears weak, recovering from an unknown
ailment. She is willing to continue her Christian work, distributing
bibles to the inmates in her husband's jail.
She gets interested in Ed Biddle, a handsome young criminal who is serving time, together with his brother, Jack. It's easy to see why this meek and somewhat shy woman falls deeply in love with the prisoner. He is what her husband is not. When Ed Biddle asks her to help them escape, she is happy to comply. In her mind, Ed represents freedom from her dull life. Kate, who appears to be a loving mother, doesn't mind throwing all away when she falls in love.
Nothing goes right as the plan is put in practice. Kate, Ed and Jack are doomed from the start; in the few days she spends time with her new lover, Kate finds a bliss she never knew. She throws away all her responsibilities aside to go with the brothers into an unknown territory, hoping to escape to Canada. In the end, Kate is alone as she must pay for her actions.
Gillian Armstrong, a feminist director, seems attracted to strong female characters, as it's the case in this picture. This is a story based on a true incident in the Pittsburgh of the beginning of the 20th Century. Although Ms. Armstrong has succeeded in presenting interesting women, her Kate Soffel, seems the right person to bring to the screen since she has a personality that recalls other strong women the director has examined before.
Diane Keaton, an actress whose choice of roles in comedies, and light fare, have been her trademark, here shows a range most viewers didn't know she had. As Mrs. Soffel, she is full of lust and a passion that only a criminal, Ed Biddle, awakens in her. Ms. Keaton's work is the best excuse to see the film. Mel Gibson is effective as the criminal Ed Biddle in one of his rare dramatic roles. Matthew Modine gives a restrained performance. Edward Herrmann, Trini Alvarado, Jennifer Dundas, Terry O'Quinn, Maury Chaykin, are seen among the supporting roles.
"Mrs. Soffel" came and went without much fanfare, but it's worth a look because of the powerful combination of Gillian Armstrong and Diane Keaton and the interesting cinematography by Russell Boyd.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Diane Keaton is "Mrs. Soffel" in this 1984 dramatization of the Buck
McGovern and the Biddle Brothers story.
Keaton plays the wife of a prison warden (Edward Herrmann) in 1901 Pittsburgh. The Biddle Brothers, Jack (Matthew Modine) and Ed (Mel Gibson) are in prison and are going to be hanged for murder. In this version anyway, due to their youth and Ed's good looks, the boys are folk heroes more on the style of the James Brothers, and crowds of mostly women gather at the prison each day with gifts, trying to get in to see Ed.
As a dutiful wife, Mrs. Soffel brings Bibles to the prisoners and reads to them. Married at 17, she has four children and a stuffy husband, and over time she finds herself attracted to Ed and believing the brothers to be innocent of their crimes. She is also opposed to hanging. Ed talks her into helping with an escape, but when it's carried out, he wants her to come along. Though she resists at first, Ed wins, and she goes on the run with Ed and Jack, leaving her husband and family behind.
Diane Keaton, with the help of an excellent script by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, The Painted Veil), paints a portrait of an unfulfilled woman who, with Ed, finds freedom and adventure. She does fall in love with Ed, but by helping him escape, she's exerting some of her own power.
Remember the days when Mel Gibson was a gorgeous hunk with a wife and a bunch of kids, appearing on Saturday Night Live and making great movies? Yeah, it was years ago. Given that so much has happened to him in the past decades, it was almost difficult to watch him. He gives a wonderful performance, though I think his character was in the script and not the real Ed. In the film, Ed falls in love with Mrs. Soffel; in real life, he undoubtedly just played on her sympathies and used her, as he would have used any woman if one of them had been able to visit him in prison.
"Mrs. Soffel" captures turn of the century Pittsburgh with beautiful cinematography and the excellent direction by Gillian Armstrong keeps the story moving.
A poignant story.
****Spoilers here **** In real life, Ed does shoot Mrs. Soffel at her request as she realizes she will not be going back to her family; she survived, went to prison for a time, and when released, she opened a seamstress shop. Her husband had resigned his position and taken the children to live in Ohio. She died several years later.
The real main character of this case is Buck McGovern (Terry O'Quinn) who has a minor role here. The capture made his career and he went on to great things.
This one was a nice surprise, I hadn't seen it when it first came out, so I rented it and enjoyed it thoroughly. Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson carry the day in this true tale of a wardens wife who falls for a prisoner. Matthew Modine does a fine job as Mel Gibsons brother, and the entire cast is fine. It's beautifully shot in Pittsburgh, and there is a languid quality about it that I found alluring. Well done all around.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, I can tell you the movie is not at all like the true story. The screen writer crafted this into a fictional romance. First of all, Ed Biddle never wrote the poem too Mrs. Soffel. Ed wrote the poem to a clergyman's daughter in the back of a book. Second, Ed cold blooded killed Detective Patrick Fitzgerald in a raid on his apartment in the Hill district.He shot Fitzgerald twice in the heart. The murder of grocer Kahney was a secondary thing. Third, Ed played Mrs. Soffel like an Irish harp. Ed never loved Mrs. Soffel. Even Jack said so after they were recaptured. That's right no one died in the snow. Ed and Jack bled slowly to death in a cell in the Butler City jail. As they say it's never a good idea to kill a cop. Strangely enough Detective Charles "Buck" McGovern who had one line in the movie became the most successful character in the movie--elected twice as a commissioner of Allegheny county.
Mel Gibson's performance in "Mrs. Soffel" is superb in any event, but viewed in the context that it is the first time he played an American character on film, that his brother was played by American actor Matthew Modine, and that the film was based on a true story of two men from Pittsburgh, it is an even greater achievement.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Somewhere between BADLANDS and DEAD MAN WALKING lies MRS. SOFFEL, a
time-period melodrama about a warden's Christian wife, played by a
wistful Diane Keaton, who, while handing out bibles on death row, gets
enamored with a slick, handsome folk hero, a young Mel Gibson soon to
be hanged with younger brother Matthew Modine.
Whether it's true love, or the fact Gibson's character (who sounds strangely like Eric Roberts) has a way of conning naïve women, the underlying passion between the polar opposites, with the gray prison bars between them, is an engaging buildup to the inevitable escape and, during the final act the trio: Keaton, Gibson and Modine, ride a sled through the snowy winter with Terry O'Quinn's posse on their tail. The romantic aspect is somewhat thin if Gibson resembled an everyman prisoner, would we have a film at all? But the direction, gorgeous cinematography and apt performances provide a spellbinding combination of style and substance, although there's more of the first than the latter.
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