Paradise Road

on April 11, 1997 by Susan Lambert
   It's a little known but fascinating footnote in history that, during World War II, Japanese soldiers interned European, Australian and American women and children in prisoner-of-war camps throughout the East Indies. And it was in one such camp in Sumatra where women prisoners formed a vocal orchestra--a classical choir--to perform beautiful renditions of poetic works that defied the brutality and hopelessness of their surroundings. Unfortunately, writer/director Bruce Beresford ("Last Dance") fails to make this true story sing on its own merits; "Paradise Road" unfolds as little more than a television movie with extra helpings of violence and a quality cast. Indeed, the work carries a perfect made-for-TV pedigree: a remarkable true tale of the human spirit's ability to survive and even triumph over adversity; an ensemble cast; women in peril; and inspirational music performed to haunting irony.
   Glenn Close leads the talented team as Adrienne Pargiter, who joins with fellow prisoner and former missionary Margaret Drummond ("City of Joy's" Pauline Collins) to organize the underground effort. As the group's earnest conductor, Close is on an ego-trip disguised as a performance; she plays her role with annoyingly obvious self-importance. Collins, on the other hand, inhabits her spiritual, peaceful Margaret so completely that, when she states she can't hate their murderous captors, she is not only completely believable but uniquely heroic. Australian Cate Blanchett makes a promising feature debut as young nurse Susan Macarthy, who befriends an unfriendly German, Dr. Verstak (played with prickly relish by "Fargo's" Frances McDormand).
   Despite a certain poetry to his words and obvious good intentions, Beresford conducts this distaff "Chorus on the River Kwai" with a heavy hand. The brutalities exacted upon the prisoners are horrific and terrifying, but to what end for the film? "Paradise Road" never finds its story, leaving the narrative flow episodic, contrived and wrought with cliche. The lovely music, which doesn't enter until almost an hour into the film, is more applied than incorporated. And those pieces, while beautiful and mesmerizing, can't by themselves bring life to this disappointing effort.    Starring Glenn Close, Pauline Collins, Cate Blanchett and Frances McDormand. Directed and written by Bruce Beresford. Produced by Sue Milliken and Greg Coote. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Rated R for prisoner-of-war brutality and violence. Running time: 110 min.
Tags: Glenn Close, Pauline Collins, Cate Blanchett, Frances McDormand, Bruce Beresford, Sue Milliken, Greg Coote, Fox Searchlight, Drama, war, brutality, violence, nurse, prisoners, music

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