For a movie set in a nightmarish prison camp and adorned with any number of R-rated scenes of torture and other assorted cruelties, Bruce Beresford’s “Paradise Road” is almost obscenely entertaining, especially for a true story.
You keep thinking that you shouldn’t be enjoying yourself so much, but the fact is, prison films of any nature are almost automatically absorbing, and this one has a curious coziness about it. It helps that Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy” and “Tender Mercies”) has populated it with one of the largest female casts ever, concentrating on not just two or three of the faces but on a dozen.
“Paradise Road” is a rather sprawling, spiraling melodrama, old-fashioned to the hilt.
The secret of the film’s success is not so much that it recast something like David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) with women but that it takes George Cukor’s “The Women” (1939) and restages it inside an internment camp. “Paradise Road” has an unusual haute couture quality.
It’s this sensibility that accounts for the film’s occasional atypical humor and some of its snappish lines of dialogue, something which has already thrown some critics. The movie opens, for example, on February 10, 1942, during a fancy dress ball in a dining room of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
The place is populated by military personnel from England and Australia and their wives and girlfriends, and the whole cheeky group is feeling slightly superior to the Japanese on this particular evening of World War II.
It’s a balmy night outside. “A nice night for the collapse of an empire,” one hoity-toity woman notes. This opening scene has lots of panache.
A few seconds later, the place is bombed - by the Japanese - with the women and children immediately evacuated by boat, which is also bombed. The attack on the ship is one of the more jarring scenes in the movie, largely because Beresford, who also wrote the script, has lulled us along with his women into a privileged feeling of safety. The few who survive the sinking of the boat are locked away by the Japanese in a tropical prison camp on the island of Sumatra, where they will remain for years, many of them dying.
“The thing they most despise are Europeans, women and prisoners,” one of the women says about the Japanese.
“That’s us!,” snaps back the woman who will become the group’s de facto leader. She’s Adrienne Pargiter, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and the wife of a successful tea planter/military man.
Glenn Close, who has made a rousing comeback in films via “101 Dalmatians,” “Mars Attacks,” “In the Gloaming” (the new Christopher Reeve film for HBO) and the upcoming Harrison Ford film, “Air Force One,” plays Adrienne in her former noble women mode. This is the kind of performance where Close hugs herself for her saintliness, the way she did early on in “The Big Chill” and “The Natural.” In this film, Close goes even further.
“Paradise Road” presents Close as Mrs. Miniver.
It’s a wonderful dramatic conceit and it works. Close is matched by recent Oscar winner Frances McDormand (“Fargo”), who plays Dr. Verstak, the only German in the camp, as if she were doing a game impersonation of Lotte Lenya. With Close giving a Grand Dame performance and McDormand as the film’s one bit of colorful theatricality (she uses the endearment “darlink”), it isn’t surprising at all that “Paradise Road” is as watchable as it is.
The first hour or so is devoted to introducing us to the hulking cast playing inmates from England, Australia, Holland and America.
There’s Julianna Margulies as a woman from New Jersey named Topsy; Pauline Collins as a commonsensical missionary named Daisy who longs to be called Margaret; Elizabeth Spriggs as a fussy British woman with her pet dog in tow and Tessa Humphries as her daughter; Australia’s Cate Blanchett, who steals scenes as a young nurse; Joanna Ter Steege (from “The Vanishing”) as a feisty Dutch nun, and Jennifer Ehle (daughter of actress Rosemary Harris) as a young British wife pining for her husband.
Some awful sequences, such as one in which a prisoner is torched by their Japanese captors for sneaking in contraband, are alternated with just plain sad ones, such as the moment of misunderstanding when the British prisoners get into a fight with the Dutch women over a bar of soap.
The film’s second half - the inspirational portion - chronicles Adrienne’s efforts to start and maintain a “vocal orchestra” among the prisoners, something which she feels will fill their vacant time and lift their spirits.
Their music provides the film with its original dramatic center.
Close looks beatific as she leads the chorus, while McDormand smokes and smirks in the best tradition of hard-boiled movie dames. In light of its subject matter, this movie is way too much fun.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Paradise Road” Location: Magic Lantern Credits: Written and directed by Bruce Beresford, starring Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Pauline Collins, Julianna Margulies, Jennifer Ehle and Cate Blanchett Running time: 1:20 Rating: R