Published April 1, 1997
Bruce Beresford does so many things so well that he should by rights be one of the best directors of our time. But there is a certain coarseness to his sensibility, a weakness for the sentimental cliché, which often comes near to vitiating even his best work. His latest film, Paradise Road, though I don’t think it deserves the drubbing it has taken from some critics, is an excellent example of what I mean. This true story (or based on truth—which ought to go without saying) of a group of British, Australian, Dutch and American women interned by the Japanese in unspeakable conditions in Sumatra during the Second World War has some interesting characters and certain of its scenes are terrifically well done.The Japanese air attack on the ship evacuating the women and children from Singapore in February, 1942, is a beautifully managed scene. Beresford also manages to strike just the right balance between barbarism and humanity in representing the women’s Japanese captors.
There is also an excellent leading performance from Glen Close as Adrienne Pargiter, the British tea planter’s wife who leads the other women in an impromptu “vocal orchestra” which hums in concerted harmonies such symphonic favorites as the largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Ravel’s Bolero. Frances McDormand as the German-Jewish Dr Verstak strikes me as a disappointment. But it is not just her fake sounding accent. The part is not well written. To a lesser extent the same is true with those of such good to splendid actresses as Pauline Collins, who plays the saintly (evangelical) missionary, Daisy ( “Margaret” ) Drummond and Joanna Ter Stegge as a Dutch nun, Cate Blanchett as Susan McCarthy, an Australian nurse and Jennifer Ehle as the glowing bride, Rosemary Leighton-Jones.
Too little is made of these characters, and even less of the “neutral” Irishwoman or the anti-imperial American (Julianna Margulies) both of whom have seemingly been pencilled in for major parts but who remain very shadowy figures indeed. Even the promise of an anti-imperial theme fizzles out. The American is heard to say, on the night they are evacuated from Singapore, “It’s a nice night for the collapse of an empire.” Amazingly, nobody hits her. Later, when one of the Brits, trying to keep the hopes of the women up, says that “The British don’t lose” their wars, this woman says: “If I had paid attention in school, I reckon I could think of a few.” But that’s about it for American-British tensions. British-Dutch ones are even more summarily dealt with. A quarrel over an Englishwoman’s charge that the Dutch stole her soap in the shower is resolved when Ms Drummond finds the diminutive bar in the grass.
Even where the characters are more fully developed, as in the case of the ever wonderful Elizabeth Spriggs as the hoity-toity patrician Mrs. Roberts, they somehow manage not to be very interesting. Even in the orchestra, she is worried about “what kind of people” will be in it with her. But her kind of class-conscious insensitivity is a familiar caricature—and what happens to her is too. She learns by being thrown together with her social inferiors lessons in good old Aussie egalitarianism. Even Adrienne Pargiter has to learn the same lesson, though in her case it is self taught. She says to Missionary Drummond: “I feel I owe you an apology,” Adrienne says to her.
“For my snobbery,” says Adrienne. “We never associated with missionaries in Singapore.”
Likewise, there is rapproachment between English and Dutch as Rosemary Leighton-Jones adopts a young Dutch woman to whom she teaches English. This rings especially false, as the Dutch all speak English like natives from the time they are children and are very unlikely to be talking in these comic foreign accents as adults. Likewise, too, there are a number of feminist touches which are straight out of the back of the cliché drawer: Adrienne, though a graduate of the Royal College of Music, had given up her music when she got married. Susan McCarthy, too, the Australian nurse is a feminist exemplum. Although she expects to return to her father’s sheep station after the war (Daddy had been upset enough about her being a nurse), she is spotted by Dr. Verstak as a potential doctor herself. “You do what you want, not what your father wants” the Doctor tells Susan.
But perhaps the most crass moment comes with the music. I suppose we have to allow the New World as a well-recognized soother of savage breasts, but it is going a bit far to have the brutal Japs on the point of bludgeoning our gals into insensibility until the moment when they hear the first notes. Suddenly they lay down their rifles, sit down and listen in rapt attention. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Maybe they liked it. Maybe they let them off because they liked it, but it didn’t happen like this. And what on earth could Beresford have been thinking when he chose as the only other selection from the women’s repertoire performed during the film Ravel’s awful “Bolero” ? Just the inevitable associations with that bit of 70s fluff, Blake Edwards’s 10, should have ruled out this disastrous lapse of taste. Better by far that Percy Grainger’s “Country Gardens,” which plays over the closing credits, should have found its way in here.