Saturday 1 April 2017

Movie Review: Paradise Road (1997)

A World War Two prison camp drama, Paradise Road places western women under the custody of brutal Japanese captors and then cues up every well-worn prison camp cliché.

It's early in 1942 and British-controlled Singapore unexpectedly falls to the advancing Japanese army. Western women and children are hurriedly evacuated by sea out of the city, but Japanese air force bombers catch up with their vessel and sink it. Survivors swim to shore and find themselves on the island of Sumatra. They are soon captured and imprisoned by the occupying Japanese troops.

The women at the camp include stubborn British diplomat's wife Adrienne (Glenn Close); kindly missionary Margaret (Pauline Collins); American socialite Topsy (Julianna Marguiles); German Jew Dr. Verstak (Frances McDormand); young Australian nurse Susan (Cate Blanchett); and the beautiful Rosemary (Jennifer Ehle), whose husband is also interned in a nearby prison for men.

Life in the women's prison camp is tough, with the sadistic Japanese guards often deploying torture and intimidation to control the women. They are forced to work as slaves in the fields, while medical supplies and food are scarce. To lift the women's spirits, Adrienne and Margaret decide to organize the women into a choir. The singing gradually brings the women together, but the war appears endless and there are more agonies to come.

Directed by Bruce Beresford and inspired by real events, Paradise Road is a story of survival under enormous physical and emotional stress. While the women's ordeal is undoubtedly harrowing, this life-as-a-prisoner-of-the-Japanese-is-hell territory has been very well explored in previous movies, and Beresford struggles to add anything new. The prisoners' greatest act of defiance is creating a choir; brave and moving as their actions were, women sitting and singing is not terrific material for a movie experience.

To fill the seemingly endless two hours of running time, Beresford defaults to a tired formula of alternating scenes of mistreatment with long sequences of the women...talking. The Japanese guards all demonstrate vicious behaviour and do the usual amount of screaming and foaming at the mouth. The talking scenes contain the expected mixture of bonding, mistrust and encouragement. As is typical of the subgenre, when prisoners are given little to do except play victims, the drama never gains traction. Big fights break out over a bar of soap. There are apparently children in the camp but they are rarely mentioned. A dog is also among the survivors, and gets a few tangential mentions as a drain on scarce resources.

The performances are solid but unspectacular. Frances McDormand comes closest to etching a memorable character, but only because the heavily accented Dr. Verstak is portrayed with almost cartoonish stand-offishness. At the end of the film little that is original is learned about any of the women; their personalities are sketched in during the opening lavish banquet scene at the luxurious Raffles hotel, and then barely evolve.

Paradise Road leads to hell, but it's a disappointingly familiar place.

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