Mrs. Soffel/Witness

October 16, 2019

mrssoffelIt should come as no surprise that leading foreign directors inevitably gravitate toward America; there’s still no better place to make movies if you want the most sophisticated technicians and equipment, not to mention actors.

The exciting boom in Australian filmmaking in the late 1970s has produced a bushelful of interesting directors, many of whom are working in America now: Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies), Fred Schepisi (Iceman) and George Miller (Twilight Zone) have lost none of their talent in the transoceanic crossing.

The latest immigrants are Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). They’ve both managed to retain their idiosyncrasies, while adapting well to a clean, forceful style suited to American moviemaking.

Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel is the more problematic of the two. It’s based on the true story of convicted murderers (brothers played by Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) who were sprung from their Pittsburgh prison in 1901 with the help of the warden ‘s wife (Diane Keaton), who had fallen in love with the Gibson character.

Intriguing situation. It offers the irresistible spectacle of l’amour fou and the perplexing filmmaking problem of dramatizing action that takes place primarily within prison walls. The growth of the love – which begins with Keaton trying to convert the brothers to Christianity and Gibson trying to take advantage of her position – is well drawn.

Even better is the sequence of flight, after the breakout, which begins with the fugitives sliding gleefully on the icy Pittsburgh streets, and ends with their getaway sleigh being pursued across snowy farms near the Canadian border.

Until that time, however, Mrs. Soffel remains strangely uncompelling, despite the passion of the actors. It’s the kind of movie that seems more impressive as you re­member it than when it is actually playing.

witnessWith Witness, you know right off the bat you’re in mysterious Peter Weir country. The sense of unidentifiable strangeness that Weir can convey so well is present in the early scenes in a Pennsylvania Amish community, which has not updated itself in a century.

During a journey outside the community with his widowed mother, a little Amish boy (Lukas Haas) witnesses the murder of a policeman in a Philadelphia train station men’s room. In the course of the investigation, the cop in charge (Harrison Ford, cannily and humorously used), finds a bigger conspiracy than he had imagined, and it’s necessary for him to flee with the boy and mother (Kelly McGillis) back to that insulated Amish community.

Weir loves to examine the clash of cultures, and this situation gives him plenty of opportunity. It also gives him the chance to develop a lovely, tentative love affair between the cop and the Amish widow. There’s a beautiful scene when Ford fixes his car radio (his car is the only one around, since the Amish still use ­horse-drawn carriages) and he and McGillis do a romantic little dance to “Wonderful World,” a song she’s probably never heard.

The Amish community is nowhere more wonderfully drawn than in the character of McGillis’s other hopeful suitor, played beautifully (and close to silently) by ballet star Alexander Godunov. He loves her, but he sees that she likes Ford; as a believer in nonviolence, and apparently genuinely respectful of this other passion, he does not interfere with the newcomer. He even starts to like him a little.

Weir has achieved something very impressive here: Witness succeeds as a commercially viable suspense movie, without ever compromising itself as a lyrical examination of different people and cultures. You don’t see that too often, and it’s something to take heart in.

First published in the Herald, February 14, 1985

It is entirely possible that I would like Mrs. Soffel today more than Witness, but at the time there was no question the latter film caught the 80s moment much more than Mrs. Soffel did. Witness has people in it I didn’t mention, such as Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, and Patti LuPone. It also provided a memorably amusing moment at the Oscars when one of the writers made the comment about his career having just peaked.


The Good Mother

March 12, 2013

goodmotherThe Good Mother, a film adapted from the novel by Sue Miller, takes its time about springing its main plot point. First we learn some history about the protagonist, Anna (Diane Keaton), recently divorced, who lives in Boston with her young daughter.

Early in the film, she meets a sculptor (Liam Neeson) with whom she has a torrid, and very satisfying, affair. The movie is a good 50 minutes old before the revelation that changes everything, a revelation that centers on child molestation, or at least the appearance of impropriety.

The movie delves into Anna’s family history, recounting her hero worship of her rebellious aunt, and the still-formidable presence of her wealthy grandparents (Ralph Bellamy and Teresa Wright).

Anna was supposed to be the pianist in the family, but she never quite had the passion for it, a lingering failure. And the film sketches Anna’s current confusions, her will to independence that wars with her reliance on the grandparents for money, and her meaningless job. The crucial thing she has is her child, and raising her daughter is the source of her passion; it’s the one thing in her life she does well.

All of this is sensitively directed by Leonard Nimoy, who continues to move farther away from the pointed ears of Mr. Spock. Nimoy’s good with actors and he stages individual scenes well, such as the first lovemaking between Keaton and Neeson, which takes place in an artist’s loft full of weird sculptures, casting strange shadows.

On some level, I’m not quite sure what the movie is about, or thinks it’s about. For instance, Keaton’s character describes herself as having “always been frigid,” until she meets the romantic sculptor, with whom she has great sex. Just when she reaches this point, she gets slapped down, and loses the most important thing in her life. The film does not denounce or endorse this theme and you wonder to what extent it is intended.

A lot of what the movie is about, however, seems to be in Diane Keaton’s performance, and I think that is where it succeeds most. Keaton is often accused of mannerism and ditheriness, and she is sometimes guilty. In The Good Mother, she’s still every inch Keaton; Nimoy has given her free rein. So her performance is full of her customary half-sentences, dotty gesticulations, and quicksilver changes of facial expression.

But it seems to be that these Keatonisms are to the point, for this character. She is supposed to be a woman very much in the process of finding herself, and under those circumstances, the performance is all too apt, and frequently poignant.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

One of those How Did This Get Made? movies, made during Nimoy’s unexpected success as a director. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone refer to this film.