Published October 1, 1998
At the end of A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, as at the end of almost every Merchant-Ivory film I’ve ever seen, I said to myself: “What was the point of that?” I guess it’s a kind of trademark of theirs. In fact, the Soldier’s Daughter, based on a memoir by the daughter of the novelist James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, is a bit better than the usual stuff that comes off this particular production line. The Jones stand- in, here called Bill Willis (Kris Kristofferson), his charming wife, Marcella (Barbara Hershey) and their strikingly beautiful daughter, Channe (Leelee Sobieski), are all meaty parts and all played competently, but the three of them together would still not be good enough to tempt me away from, say, a comfortable evening in front of the TV. And the film still has no point.
Or, rather, its only point is to celebrate the moment at which certain sorts of now-antiquated “progressive” ideas have triumphed as if such things had never been heard of before. To watch a Merchant Ivory film like this one, you would think that it was still cool and original and bohemian for a father to suggest that a teenage boy sleep with his teenage daughter because “they’re going to do it anyway; let them do it right.” Or among the great man’s striking or profound obiter dicta we find the following: “There’s nothing glorious or glamorous about killing; it’s sloppy and messy. . .” Gosh! Who knew? This is what Bill takes pride in calling “brutal but honest.”
Frankly, the guy seems rather a jerk, at least on the evidence we are provided by the film. We never see the great writer writing (though that is something notoriously difficult to present on film) and he’s rather a bore in his conversation — though I’m sure he was terrifically nice in real life. One supposes it’s Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and James Ivory, who co-wrote the screenplay, who think that it is daring and unconventional to be sexually “liberated” (as they used to say in the late sixties and early seventies, the period in which the film is set) or anti-clerical. The Catholic clergy are said by Mr Willis to live high on the hog from what they have taken from the poor, and one is struck by the horrible suspicion that Mrs Jhabvala and Mr Ivory are unaware that they are making their character mouth the most boring sort of Marxist claptrap.
Their fascination with this character give the movie all the usual failings of the biopic, in which characters are introduced only to disappear, because that is what they did in real life. The most notable of these is the gloriously screwed up Francis Fortescue (Anthony Roth Costanzo) who becomes Channe’s best friend in her early teens. Channe herself has the usual Merchant-Ivory character’s problem of being monumental but uninteresting, and her poor brother Billy (Jesse Bradford) is a complete cipher, but Francis holds our attention from the moment when he boldly stands in front of the class and sings Voi che sapete, Cherubino’s sexually ambiguous aria from The Marriage of Figaro, in a booming falsetto. “I know all about women and sex and stuff like that,” he assures Channe later. “My mother told me.”
Mother (Jane Birkin) is also a promising character. But before long the Willises move back to the United States and both Francis and his batty mum drop out of the picture. No more is heard from them, and the whole last third of the picture that takes place back in the US is without an interesting character. Dad brings them home because he doesn’t want the kids to become “Eurotrash brats” (I think this is an anachronism, by the way: the word “Eurotrash” was not current before, at least, the 1980s), so they become bratty Americans instead. Oh yeah, and dad dies, his last words to Billy being an injunction “To take care of the house and stuff.” Is there some kind of weird irony here? Is the idea to point us toward the pedestrian spirit that lurks even in the breast of the great writer? But if so, it does not do so in any funny or interesting way. He’s always been a pretty pedestrian sort of guy. Why would anyone want to see such a film. What’s the point?