Prior to viewing Sophie’s Choice, it’s terribly easy to assume the film is the tale of one woman, the eponymous Sophie Zawistowska. (Indeed, the incontestable talents of a young Meryl Streep do nothing to refute this assumption.) Upon further inspection however, it is not one, but three compelling characters who emerge; Sophie, her tumultuous lover Nathan Landau, and the often overlooked but particularly crucial character of Stingo, the young writer from whose eyes we watch the story unfold.
Our narrator, whom we only as Stingo, begins a romantic, rather sheltered young man, with dreams of becoming the next great American novelist. With no experience in love, and even less in death, he relocates to Brooklyn to pen his first novel, and hopefully learn a little about life in the process. In this sense, Stingo is a perfect narrator for Sophie’s Choice; he is a clean slate on which the events that play out around him can make the greatest impression.
On his first night at the boarding house, Stingo encounters a violent Mr Landau and his mysterious lover, the beautiful Sophie. Over the course of the summer, the three become very close; however, the turbulent nature of their first meeting, as well as the great possibility of another outburst from Nathan, hangs over the rest of the film. The carefree, summery tones of Coney Island and picnics in the parks are charming, but carry with them a sense of unease. These also ultimately contrast very well with two other moods: the the drab, tired colours of Sophie’s tragic past, and the dark blues and black which frame the telling of her story.
As time goes on, the beautiful façade which his dearest friends had so carefully built does indeed begin to crumble, and nothing is what it had originally seemed. Here is where Stingo’s original innocence becomes most important; the unfortunate circumstances change him in such a way, and a different, wiser man emerges at the end of the film.
Although Sophie’s Choice is told from the perspective of Stingo, and it is arguably the story of Sophie which is the most harrowing, it was the character of Nathan Landau who most intrigued me on this viewing. Looking back, it is very clear why; extravagant, volatile, romantic —all these adjectives could have been invented with Nathan in mind. With Landau straddling the fine line between brilliance and insanity, Kline attacks the role with a fearless theatricality, something truly hard to come by in a cinematic performance.
Finally, of course, is Sophie. Books have probably been written about Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, so much so that this paragraph seems not only futile but a little unnecessary. For what it’s worth though, I shall like to add my own praise for her pitch-perfect (literally, she speaks German with a Polish accent) performance. Despite the great differences between lighthearted New York Sophie and her appearance and manner in the concentration camps, there exists this permanent pain from the moment Sophie has to choose between her two children. Many choice she makes in her life, but from that point onwards, it is almost as if she is no longer with us; for me, this is the most important aspect of Streep’s chararacterisation: an incurable emptiness, lessened only by the love of Nathan.
It is the exceptional strength in these three characters that makes the film so absorbing. Sophie’s Choice features many lovely compositions showcasing this trio, especially in the first half of the film. A particular mention must go to the wonderful scene on the Brooklyn Bridge; a scene where, upon finishing reading Stingo’s manuscript, Nathan invites him, along with Sophie, to go out and celebrate. Following their arrival on the bridge, Nathan proclaims into the night:
On this bridge on which so many great Americans writers stood and reached out for words to give America its voice… looking toward the land that gave them Whitman… from its Eastern edge dreamt his country’s future and gave it words… on this span of which Thomas Wolfe and Hart Crane wrote, we welcome Stingo into that pantheon of the Gods… whose words are all we know of immortality.
There is such a hopefulness in this scene. The three, if only for a single moment, are not only perfectly content with their present, but see before them a fine and happy future. At the film’s conclusion, I was reminded of this scene; a enduring and beautiful picture which creates only more tragedy for Sophie’s Choice‘s poignant denouement.