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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 04/17/1997, B: Peter Keough,

Camp not so classic

Paradise Road is paved with good intentions

by Peter Keough

PARADISE ROAD. Written and directed by Bruce Beresford. With Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Pauline Collins, Cate Blanchette, Jennifer Ehle, Julianna Margulies, Johanna Ter Steege, and Elizabeth Spriggs. A Fox Searchlight release. At the Copley Place, the Kendall Square, and in the suburbs.

ALT="[Paradise Road]" align=right width=225 height=146 hspace=15 vspace=5> Nothing is so horrific that it can't be eased into movie conventions. Since Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1939), prisoner-of-war camps have served as increasingly genial settings for enactments of the evils of modern history and the fate of individuals before the powers that overwhelm them. There must be some bromidic magic to the genre, for three decades after Renoir's masterpiece, despite the intervention of Auschwitz, we got Hogan's Heroes.

Based on a true story, Bruce Beresford's Paradise Road is no Grand Illusion -- and, mercifully, no Hogan's Heroes. Beresford earnestly plays out the expectations of the genre, and occasionally he achieves moments of poignance, authenticity, and visual poetry. What most elevates Road from the beaten path, however, are the performances of the cast and the story's unique circumstances. The inmates are all women, and they strive to escape not by digging tunnels, but by singing.

At the beginning of World War II, trapped by Japan's lightning conquests of Dutch and British outposts in Asia, thousands of European women and children were captured and put in internment camps. In one of these in the depths of Sumatra, Adrienne Pagiter (Glenn Close in long-suffering, stiff-upper-lip beatific mode), a prisoner from the British upper class, resolves to lift the morale of the camp and resist the captors' brutal repression by covertly organizing a choir. Assisted by Margaret Drummond (an affectingly saintly Pauline Collins), an English missionary with the knack of recalling musical scores, and Sister Wilhelmina (Johanna Ter Steege, overcoming the part's clichés with her ethereal earthiness), a Botticellian Dutch nun with a taste for whiskey and a dream of being a grease monkey, she rehearses her ensemble under the noses of the guards, risking punishment and death.

Call it Bridge on the River Kwai by way of The Sound of Music, with an occasional foray into Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. This last is most strongly evoked in the film's beginning, when a jewelry-bedangled Pagiter and other snooty nabob types, such as the bovine dowager Mrs. Roberts (an endearingly insufferable Elizabeth Spriggs), attend a party at the chi-chi Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The Veuve Clicquot, big-band music, and racist dismissals of the formidability of the Japanese foe are predictably interrupted by the latter's siege guns.

Evening clothes and all, the partygoers are hustled into tiny transports to flee the invasion, billeted with lower-class types like nurses and missionaries. Not only does Beresford here re-create the apocalyptic spectacle of a disaster of war, in the sequence in which Pagiter's vessel is sunk and strafed, he electrifies the screen with the terror of combat. More important, he takes a swipe at the class system and imperialism -- the war, he suggests, might not have been altogether bad if it had helped level both.

Unfortunately, he's less progressive in his racial attitudes. Pagiter and her fellow survivors from the boat are greeted by savage beatings, starvation, immolations, and hypocritical self-righteousness. True, though it's suggested that the prisoners volunteer as "comfort women," only one instance of attempted rape is depicted. But just about every other Japanese stereotype from the war is reprised -- the effete and sadistic officer, the brutish camp sergeant, the cowardly translator, the squalling, subhuman camp guards brandishing sticks. This tendency undermines what should have been one of the film's finest moments. After laborious preparations in secret, the choir boldly step forward one night and assemble for their first performance. The guards rush out and are about to strike when Pagiter lifts her baton and out surges an a cappella version of the Largo from Dvorák's New World Symphony. The guards freeze and listen, but the message seems to be not that music is a universal language but that it can soothe even the most savage breast.

Beresford redeems himself later in a scene between Pagiter and the brutal sergeant; it's a moment of almost surreal beauty. And if the Japanese are more or less stuck as caricatures, the female characters are allowed to transcend their stereotypes. Australian actress Cate Blanchett is innocent but steely as Susan, a shy nurse who learns to speak her mind; Frances McDormand is eerily reminiscent of Joel Grey from Cabaret as Dr. Verstak, the cynical, no-nonsense German Jew who is the camp's physician; ER's Julianna Margulies brings a pre-feminist bite to her standard tough-cookie American, Topsy. Would that Beresford had indulged these darker, more ambiguous tendencies -- it's revealing that after the haunting Largo the choir's next number is a cheesy Boléro -- he'd have had a film stranger, and stronger, than Paradise.