Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 30 min.
Release Date: December 8th, 1982 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Alan J. Pakula Actors: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol, Rita Karin, Greta Turken, Josh Mostel, Robin Bartlett
n 1947, Stingo (Peter MacNicol) journeys to the “Sodom of the North” – New York – to become a novelist. But he’s never been in love, he hasn’t had to cheat death, and he’s never combated any harrowing crises that might inspire a great story. So he starts his quest for discovery in Brooklyn, where he resorts to renting a room in a large pink house – due to the considerable cost of living – and stocks up on three cases worth of Spam for sustenance. His life becomes instantly more interesting when he meets his upstairs neighbors, the Polish Sophie (Meryl Streep) and the spirited American Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Harvard-grad biologist and Pfizer employee. Stingo’s first encounter with the couple involves witnessing Nathan’s spontaneous manifestation of an unharmonious argument with Sophie on the staircase, resulting in the former storming out and the latter crumpled on the ground in tears.
The following day, Nathan returns to reconcile with Sophie. Then, the newly convivial twosome invites Stingo to breakfast and to Coney Island as a proper welcoming. The young writer is occasionally uneasy about the relationship, but the trio soon becomes the best of friends. Sophie recounts her tale of being saved by Nathan – in her mind, a miraculous rescue from dire illness and malnutrition. Having been in the U.S. for only six months, she was taken in by Nathan after she fainted at a library, and he heroically nursed her back to a stable condition.
Meanwhile, Stingo strikes up a fling with self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Leslie Lapidus (Greta Turken), who speaks constantly of sex but can’t bring herself to actually engage in it. As Stingo and Sophie become closer, she eventually divulges her tale of being sent to Auschwitz for stealing a ham, her liberation to a Swedish refugee camp, and a suicide attempt. When Nathan becomes more and more paranoid, especially with his anti-Nazi research and inquisition of Sophie’s wartime connections and survival stratagems (despite his own activities turning suspicious, clearly hiding secrets of his own), Stingo realizes that their alliance is headed toward a disastrous collision.
Streep is immediately engrossing, sporting a thick accent; an alternatingly strained and vivacious demeanor; and a backstory that demands sympathy. She’s mysterious and complicated and believable, slowly revealing more and more about her troubled past. The carefully divulged details are torturous in pacing yet thoroughly entertaining in their gravity; the longish runtime moves rather swiftly thanks to riveting performances and significant actions, highlighted by nerve-wracking sequences in the German prison camp.
Additionally, the dialogue is natural and smart, delivered with masterly authenticity by Streep and MacNicol. Not a single word is wasted. And Kline builds up to his Academy Award-winning turn in “A Fish Called Wanda,” though here he harbors a much darker, sinister, irrational behavior, to be unleashed intermittently in this far harsher environment. He’s a bully and a sophistic, dangerously jealous person, strategically hiding behind random romantic gestures, poetic speeches, and dramatic glamor. His fickleness is regularly infuriating.
The music by Marvin Hamlisch truly sets the tone and pace, shifting from somber to lively to dramatic, following the transitions in flashback storytelling that impart Sophie’s history and, ultimately, the titular choice (which shockingly doesn’t have as much of an impact on the plot as many might think, merely being one of many unfortunate decisions Sophie faces). The film instead becomes about lies, truths, forgiveness, atonement, guilt, allegiance, tragedy, endurance, and, finally, love – the kind that will shape a powerful story for the narrator and an unforgettable cinematic experience for the viewer. It’s both crushing and triumphant.
– Mike Massie