Directed by Bruce Beresford. Starring Glenn Close, Frances Mcdormand, Pauline Collins, Julianna Margulies, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Ehle, Elizabeth Spriggs, Joanna Ter Steege. (1997, R, 125 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., April 25, 1997
The story of the women interned in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps during World War II undoubtedly speaks as a 20th-century testament to the indomitable human spirit and its will to survive. Unfortunately, Paradise Road depicts the harrowing experience as a historical cliché, to the degree that it's nearly trivialized. As told by screenwriter-director Beresford -- a filmmaker with a spotty career, to say the least -- Paradise Road loosely adapts true incidents that recount the lives of several women during their brutal three-year incarceration in the jungles of Sumatra. They're a multicultural group: English, Australian, Dutch, Chinese, with an American and a German thrown in for good measure. They're also a collection of stock characters: the noble Englishwoman, the plucky nun, the rebellious nurse, the forgiving missionary, the lovelorn beauty, the embittered loner. In feminist terms, it is the universal sisterhood that bonds these disparate women together in their common ordeal. This esprit de corps manifests itself most symbolically through the “vocal orchestra” pieces they perform to remind themselves (and their captors) that they're still alive. In a scene intended to evoke pathos, but which instead is unintentionally funny, the Japanese are literally stopped in their tracks upon hearing the debut symphony of music from a more refined and civilized world; it is, of course, a sound that soothes the heathen Oriental beast. (There's no question that Paradise Road has a very Anglocentric perspective.) And although the film gradually attempts to humanize the barbaric and cruel Japanese to some degree, this is still an us-versus-them scenario, unlike other prisoner-of-war films such as The Bridge Over the River Kwai, for example. None of the performances here make much of an indelible impression, particularly since there are so many characters upon which to focus. As the orchestra leader who inspires the women, Close is a little annoying at times in her headstrong dignity, while McDormand's Teutonic accent in the role of a doctor given to glib comments sometimes borders on parody. Ultimately, Paradise Road is one of those well-intended films that doesn't completely succeed because it shortsightedly believes that its eloquent subject matter is enough, in and of itself, to create a memorable moviegoing experience. As this and countless other films based upon serious and weighty stories taken from real-life have proven, however, that's only one part of the equation.