Bruce Beresford has made a number of films I don’t care for, including Breaker Morant (1979), Tender Mercies (1983), Crimes of the Heart (1986) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), which though it won the best picture Oscar was strictly Hallmark Hall of Fame; but the Australian has also made one film that’s strikingly good: Black Robe (1991), from Brian Moore’s novel about a young Jesuit priest in the New World, hoping to convert Huron, Iroquois and Algonquin tribal members, in the 1600s. Shot in Quebec amidst bold, pristine landscapes and under vast, chilling skies, here is a work of fierce, barbaric beauty—a stark and violent adventure of colliding cultures. It proved the perfect antidote to one of the two or three worst best picture Oscar winners ever: from the year before, Kevin Costner’s thematically similar, unendurably protracted, feeble-brained and sanctimonious Dances With Wolves (1990).
Beresford’s first fully Australian film since Breaker Morant, Paradise Road is the biggest Australian production ever. It has lots of problems, some of them large and looming. However, it provides the perfect antidote to Steven Spielberg’s depressingly mediocre filming of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun a decade earlier, the pussywillow-assed pseudomystical soap opera that left the impression that life in a Japanese concentration camp wasn’t all that distasteful. Beresford knows better, and the film’s credits list those survivors of the experience whom he talked to before making this film. (Beresford also consulted diaries and memoirs of such prisoners of war, including Helen Colijin’s Song of Survival: Women Interred, upon which his script, from a motion-picture story by David Giles and Martin Meader, is largely based. It is likely that an uncredited inspiration is also Australian playwright John Misto’s 1996 The Shoehorn Sonata.) Unlike Spielberg, moreover, Beresford didn’t come self-blinded by the incompatible agenda of needing to pacify the Japanese, who remain so unwilling to face squarely their brutality during the Second World War, in order to secure and keep afloat meticulous business deals with the Japanese. Beresford came to his material honestly instead.
Paradise Road is based on actual events. Singapore, 1942, the Raffles Hotel; a dinner dance is underway, attended by posh British citizens quick to voice anti-Japanese racism. The Japanese invade, and women and children attempt to evacuate by ship. The Japanese bomb the ship, sinking it. The film follows a few women as their raft washes ashore on the island of Sumatra. Soon after, they are picked up by the Japanese and deposited, brutally, in a labor camp—their “home” until the end of the war.
Unlike Spielberg, who is loath to dwell on anything that places the Japanese in an unflattering light (Andrew Sarris praised Spielberg’s refusal to indulge the current anti-Japanese American sentiment), Beresford shows many instances of cruelty and brutality by the Japanese captors. I am happy to report that he succeeds in keeping the film from becoming a catalog of bloody, vicious horrors. I am unhappy to report, however, that Spielbergism must be as contagious as it’s odious a disease, for Beresford compromises the material with shafts of treacly sentiment. The uncompromising nature of Black Robe startles and even a bit terrifies; Driving Miss Daisy had just been a huge hit, and so, for once, liberated from commercial demons, Beresford went the way of his soul and made a genuine film, not something calculated to please and appease. Paradise Road may be fifty times better than Empire of the Sun, but it’s too dewy-eyed and “sensitive” to be in range of the achievement of Beresford’s one high attainment.
After introducing various British, Dutch and Australian female prisoners (some of the Brits we recognize from Raffles), the film concentrates on proud, arrogant Adrienne Pargiter, wife of a tea planter. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, she organizes her fellow detainees into a “vocal orchestra”—not a choir exactly, because instead of singing songs they hum or intone songs. (Others in the group have opted to service Japanese soldiers as prostitutes.) The women participate in their rehearsals and their performances in defiance of their captors, to retain some measure of autonomy and dignity, and to remain in touch with the beauty of life from which they have been otherwise divided. All this is based on fact, but Beresford errs in a dozen or more ways that accumulate into a softening of the detainees’ miserable and harrowing existence, which includes bouts of untreated malaria, beatings, filthy accommodations, near starvation. One example of these “softening” ways: the application of middle-distance shots and even closeups when Pargiter is conducting, emphasizing the transporting, ecstatic nature of the musical events. Another example: reaction shots of teary-eyed Japanese guards, so suddenly taken by the lovely music. Huh?
The film falters on other fronts as well. Among these are its failure to convey an adequate sense of the duration of the prisoners’ ordeal (years seem like weeks) and the stereotypical nature of most of the characters. Also, when the women, walking down a road, pick up stones and start striking one against another to “make music,” the film is less than clear that they are doing this because they are unable to sing and they are unable to sing because they are now too weak from hunger and illness. An important point, this, and Beresford’s direction all but loses it, and with it whatever emotional power the scene might otherwise have had. But, for me, little of this weighs against the film’s thematic clarity, its poignant demonstration of the human capacity for survival under the most challenging circumstances. Some individuals do not survive, of course, and this makes the ultimate triumph of those who do all the more mighty.
Too, the “singing” is exquisite, giving the film some fine musical echoes of Kon Ichikawa’s tremendous The Burmese Harp (1956) to add to its inevitable echoes of David Lean’s regrettable The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Let me remind you that Beresford has always loved music profoundly; he stages operas, and in fact right before Paradise Road directed Sweeney Todd for Portland Opera in Portland, Oregon.
The lead performance is also an asset; Glenn Close is excellent as Pargiter, an unpleasant person with an immense gift. Even better are Pauline Collins as Daisy “Margaret” Drummond, a missionary, and young Jennifer Ehle as Rosemary, the wife of a soldier, who recounts their courtship in one of the film’s most moving passages. However, Frances McDormand, fresh from her undeserved Oscar for Fargo, is close to being dreadful, German accent and all, as Verstak, a Jewish refugee pretending to be a medical doctor. And dreadful indeed are Cate Blanchett and Julianna Margulies, who in addition to being clueless actresses are eyesores as well, doubtless tossed into the cast to render more plausible Ehle’s sublime beauty.
The color cinematographer, Peter James, won a prize in Australia for his work here. The cinematography is soft and lush, which may be a mistake, but there are inserts of the most ravishing landscapes, and these, I suppose, contribute some degree of irony or other kind of distancing. If I had been Beresford, however, I would have chosen black and white and a darker visual rendering.
But the tougher film I would have preferred should not take away from the intermittently fine thing that Beresford has accomplished with Paradise Road.
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