Americans in Paris
Merchant-Ivory Explore Family Life in the Me Decade
For those who cringe at the very idea of another corset-and-crumpet tale from the Merchant-Ivory producer-director team (which transformed literary splendor into cinematic elegance with A Room With a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day), its latest, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, might come as something of a pleasant surprise. True, it's another literary adaptation focusing on expatriates abroad, but far from the refined and repressed salons of the turn of the century, this story is set in the 1960s and '70s. Based on the semiautobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones, daughter of writer James Jones (author of the rugged From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line), the film is a beautifully etched glimpse into family life and feminine coming of age that rides out its few rough patches through the marvelous central performance by Leelee Sobieski.
Thematically, A Soldier's Daughter sounds sparse and it is, being a series of intimate sketches of the Willis family--Americans in Paris--told from the point of view of Channe Willis (initially played by Luisa Conlon). The film divides itself into three segments, each named after a significant male in Channe's life. The first is titled "Billy" for Benoît, the French boy adopted by Bill and Marcella Willis (Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey) from his single teenage mother, who cannot afford to care for him. Initially hostile to the interloper, Channe seeks refuge with her loving Portuguese nanny Candida, while a nervous Benoît, who has been moved from various other homes, keeps a bag packed to make his certain expulsion easier. Once Channe accepts Benoît and he realizes that Bill and Marcella mean to keep him, he determines to become completely American, changing his name to Billy and speaking only English.
The next segment, "Francis," moves into Channe and Billy's early adolescence, with Channe now played by the remarkably poised Sobieski (Deep Impact), who looks startlingly like a young Helen Hunt. Francis Fortescue (given great flare by musical stage actor Anthony Roth Costanzo), a flamboyantly theatrical American who loves opera and is being raised by his eccentric single mother, impresses Channe after he boldly sings an aria to his class on the first day of school. Francis' shrewdness and bohemian qualities attract Channe and the two become thick as thieves, much to the annoyance of Billy (Jesse Bradford) and to the amusement of her parents.
The final segment, "Daddy," has the Willis family returning to America in the early '70s, due to Bill's increasingly ill health and his determination that the kids not turn into what he calls "Euro-trash brats." This is the strongest, most satisfying part of the film, as Channe and Billy find themselves strangers in their own country, amplifying the normal teen dread 10-fold. While Billy turns inward and refuses to learn about his real mother, Channe begins sleeping around to gain peer acceptance. Hovering over all is the family's fear and denial of Bill's failing health.
A measure of the richness of detail in James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's script is how a minor but significant figure such as the nanny, Candida develops into a full, dimensional, and romantically vivid character, even though she is filtered through the perception of the children. And those perceptions never seem phony; as Channe and Billy reach adolescence, the nanny's exotic quality fades substantially, and by the time the Willises relocate to America Candida is no more to the children then a distant childhood memory.
Ivory's ease and confidence is also evident--for example, in allowing Francis' aria to play out in its entirety. Far from being indulgent, this languishing exposition allows time to appreciate Channe's initial unease over Francis, then her curiosity and ultimately frank admiration. It reveals as much about Francis' confidence and penchant for dramatics as it does of Channe's ability to appreciate it.
Oddly enough, where this strength of character development falters is in Ivory's uneven work with Kristofferson and Hershey. Perhaps hindered by the hideous Pulp Fictionstyle wig she wears throughout the picture, Hershey fails to sustain any credible maternal warmth or attain the depth she has demonstrated in her better roles (A World Apart, Portrait of a Lady). Her brash and sassy attitude in the early scenes feels unnatural, little more than a caricature of the snobbish American living abroad. Similarly, Ivory can't animate Kristofferson past patches of flat awkwardness, most apparent in a crucial scene in which he struggles to articulate his World War II experience to Channe. (Although Kristofferson does rise to the occasion late in the film, with a powerful rendering of a scene in which Bill challenges Channe to take responsibility for her behavior). Their uneven performances are countered by the sweetly piercing poignancy of Sobieski, who makes every excruciating moment, however familiar, new and alive.
Ismail Merchant and James Ivory's greatest successes have generally not centered on American characters or contemporary locales. Their ventures into that area, such as the unfortunate Slaves of New York (1989), the strangely leaden Jefferson in Paris (1995), and the limp Surviving Picasso (1996), are best overlooked, especially when compared to their beautifully crafted character studies, from Quartet (1981) to Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990). Starkly contrasted to last year's critically acclaimed The Ice Storm, which reflected the self-loathing, hypocrisy, and emptiness that apparently defined the alienation between parents and their children in the decade of "free love," A Soldier's Daughter can be seen as radical. The Willises may be unusual, but there is no dysfunction, no squelched bitterness. Parents and children are wrapped in--gasp!--mutual respect and sincere affection, even in their differences. What a concept.