Sophie’s Choice separates Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, The Devil Wears Prada) from the rest of Hollywood. She’s played some incredible characters over her 30 years in the business. She’s been an Iron Lady, she’s had a farm in Africa, a dingo stole her baby, she danced in Lughnasa, she wore Prada, she abandoned her child, she cooked, she adapted, she had doubt and she sent postcards from the edge. But it was when she played Sophie Zawistowska in Sophie’s Choice that she perfected the art of acting.
Ok, there’s no such thing as perfection in acting or film. In reality I should give Sophie’s Choice a 9.5 out of 10. But I decided to round up, because this film and performance is far too brilliant and life is far too short to fuss over half a point. So 10/10 it is.
The film begins with the introduction of Stingo, a writer who moves to Brooklyn to finish his novel. He stays in a large boarding house where he meets Sophie and Nathan. Nathan is hyperactive, intelligent and absolutely batshit crazy. Sophie is his quiet, lovely and beautifully patient girlfriend. Nathan harbours a secret life, but so does Sophie. And as time goes by, Sophie opens up to the new boarder, and reveals the horrors of her past.
Without spoiling too much, Stingo sees a tattoo on Sophie’s arm one evening and comes to realize that she was a prisoner at Auschwitz. The film then navigates between Sophie sharing her life with Stingo and Nathan, and flashing back to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Throughout the film, I had this overwhelming feeling of a presentiment. As I grew to love the characters and all of their excentricities, I continuously felt that death was lurking in the shadows behind them. Sophie had escaped Auschwitz, but Auschwitz had never left her. Even when she was trying to build a new life with Nathan, I still felt that she was heading towards darkness and that she was bringing Nathan with her.
Although Sophie tells the flashback stories, Stingo is the narrator of the film. We watch the complexity of Sophie’s relationship with Nathan, through Stingo’s eyes. He is essentially the audience and he has no real input into how this story will end. He watches it play out in front of him, just like we do.
And then there was the marvellous Meryl Streep. Sophie is Polish but she also speaks fluent German. So Meryl not only learned German for the role, but she also learned to speak German with a Polish accent.
But it doesn’t end there. She then had to speak German with a Polish accent whilst acting in one of the most soul destroying scenes in cinema. Even after watching Sophie’s Choice for the 30th time, I’m still in awe of how she does it. Put simply, she’s an acting God.
Meryl’s performance is ranked #3 in Premiere Magazine’s 100 greatest performances of all time. She also won an Oscar for her performance.
I was only 12 years old when I saw this movie for the first time and it was difficult to digest at such a young age. *what were my parents thinking?* The subject matter was deeply upsetting and the infamous scene that I shall not speak of has haunted me to this day. But there are small moments of hope and happiness that Meryl brought to the character that helped me cope with the tragedy of this story. Sophie has hope in her eyes, if only for a moment or two.
There is also a poem by Emily Dickinson that helps narrate the story and it brings Nathan and Sophie together at the start and end of the the film in a full circle.
Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.
Meryl has been a vessel for so many women’s stories over the years. She has travelled to the depths of their soul and drawn a map for other actresses to study and explore. But out of all her characters, in all of her films, there has been none so beautiful, so empathetic, so divine and so tragic, than that of Sophie in Sophie’s Choice.