A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries

1998, R, 124 min. Directed by James Ivory. Starring Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey, Leelee Sobieski, Jane Birkin, Dominique Blanc, Jesse Bradford, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Harley Cross, Isaac De Bankolé, Virginie Ledoyen, Luisa Conlon, Samuel Gruen.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 2, 1998

Such an austere and militaristic-sounding title as this one belies the affectionate, warm glow that blankets the family memoir of A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. This latest Ismael Merchant-James Ivory production was adapted (by Ivory and the team's longtime collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) from Kaylie Jones' autobiographical novel, which is based on her childhood memories of life with her expatriate writer father James Jones (From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line). Told from the point of view of daughter Channe Willis (played as a child by Conlon and as a teen by Deep Impact's Sobieski), A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries tells the story of her early life in Paris with her bohemian, expatriate parents Bill and Marcella (Kristofferson and Hershey) and her adopted brother Billy (played as a child by Gruen and as a teen by King of the Hill's wonderful-child-actor-now-grown-up Bradford). As is customary in Merchant-Ivory films, the pleasure is in the details. Although most of their best work is associated with genteel period costumers, A Soldier's Daughter is set in the Sixties and Seventies and the story's temporal proximity finds these filmmakers no less deft in their attention to the visual trappings of the period. Also a pleasure to watch are the performances, each of them lovingly etched evocations that make you long to know these characters more fully. Yet the story's accumulation of scattered impressions is exactly what bedevils the film's overall impact. The story lacks focus, sustained development, and direction. Divided into three sections, the film is structured around Channe's impressions of the three most important men in her early life. The first centers on the arrival of Billy, né Benoit, to the welcoming Willis household. The second features Channe's schoolmate and best friend Francis Fortescue (Costanzo, in a scene-stealing performance), an opera-mad adolescent boy who's probably just a few months shy of recognizing his own latent homosexuality. The third section focuses on Channe's father Bill, as he decides to move his family back to the States so that he can be closer to the American doctors who will treat his worsening congenital heart condition and also to prevent his kids from maturing into worthless “Eurotrash.” Channe and Billy, ever the problematic students in the rigid Parisian international schools, continue their outsider status when placed in an American high school. Channe quickly ingratiates herself as a backseat tramp and then discovers the diminishing profit margin in that gambit. Throughout, there are numerous flickerings of numerous coming-of-age storylines, and though most of them are interesting, most are abandoned shortly after igniting. There are also fascinating glimpses into the unconventional and boozy yet nurturing and unpretentious family life presided over by the loving and refreshingly candid war veteran/famous writer father and chic firebrand mother. If all that weren't enough, we're also provided with details of the lives of Channe's perhaps-too-devoted housemaid Candida (Blanc) and her suitor (de Bankolé). But wait, there's also the story of Billy's biological mother and her diary. One way of looking at this, I suppose, is with gratefulness for the film's wealth of detail. But, to my mind, it is a maddening melange of autobiographical threads that lead in dozens of directions, like a maze with no exit. This soldier's daughter may just be too exasperated to cry.

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A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, James Ivory, Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey, Leelee Sobieski, Jane Birkin, Dominique Blanc, Jesse Bradford, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Harley Cross, Isaac De Bankolé, Virginie Ledoyen, Luisa Conlon, Samuel Gruen

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