There are certain movies I’m compelled to watch if they pop up when I channel surf. Last month I hardly got anything done because Up in the Air was running endlessly on cable, and who can resist George Clooney in a story like that? Yesterday it was a film I hadn’t watched in quite a while–Paradise Road, starring an amazing line-up of actors: Glenn Close, Pauline Collins, Frances McDormand, Julianna Marguilies, Jennifer Ehle and perhaps best of all, a young Cate Blanchett in her first make-you-sit-up-and-take-notice role.
The film is based on true events: the evacuation of women and children from Singapore in 1942 prior to the British surrender, the torpedoing and strafing of their rescue ships and their subsequent internment by the Japanese on Sumatra for three and a half years. The internees were a mixed lot: wives and children of army officers, businessmen and Dutch planters, missionaries, nuns and Australian army nurses, among others. During their captivity two of the women organized a “vocal orchestra,” and from memory, wrote scores of classical works arranged for performance by their fellow prisoners. Unlike a number of these women, the scores survived the war and are heard in the film.
Admittedly the movie, written and directed by Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant and later, Driving Miss Daisy), pulls some punches. It does not show the machine-gun massacre of survivors of the sunken Vyner Brooke, nor the sexual abuse many of the women endured. And for obvious reasons the actors can’t come near to resembling real survivors of years of starvation, malaria and dysentery with little if any medical treatment. But what we do see is enough to make you wonder how their actual counterparts made it through.
There are some amazing moments in this movie: Cate Blanchett’s army nurse standing up to the camp commander over the deprivation the internees have suffered, and later enduring a day and night of torture; Glenn Close, the organizer of the vocal orchestra, being marched into the jungle by a Japanese sergeant (wonderfully played by Clyde Kusatsu), obviously fearing her imminent execution or worse, only to be confronted by something quite different; and Julianna Marguilies, tempted by the opportunity to live in luxury while servicing Japanese officers, not quite nobly opting to “sing and starve.” Frances McDormand has a great time playing the camp’s doctor, a German Jewish refugee, and Jennifer Ehle is heartbreaking as the newlywed separated from her army officer husband. I also enjoyed Johanna Ter Steege as the not-so-innocent nun (“I luff viskey!”), but Pauline Collins, as the missionary who writes the vocal scores from memory, gets the best scene. Her quietly calling the camp commander on the real extent of his authority suspends time–you can’t believe she’s said what she said, and you wonder where she got the gall to say it.
This one is well worth the time, but I’d advise passing up the cable version for either a Region 2 DVD or the film on VHS (remember those?). The TV version and as I understand it, the Region 1 DVD, both omit a crucial scene–the defiant aftermath of the death of one of the main characters. This should not be missed.