Based on extensive research of true incidents, Bruce Beresford’s “Paradise Road” is an honorable and even noble effort to pay tribute to the courage and strength of a group of disparate women held captive by the Japanese during World War II. Though carefully rendered from a historical perspective, this powerful account of female friendship and bonding under the most cruel conditions lacks the narrative focus and dramatic shapeliness to generate emotional excitement. Still, the illustrious cast, toplined by Glenn Close, Pauline Collins and Frances McDormand, and potential interest by mostly female viewers in this still little-known chapter of history, should ensure a reasonably decent opening for the Fox Searchlight release, though ultimately, theatrical results will not meet expectations.
Written by Beresford, who reportedly spent two years studying the era and interviewing survivors, story recounts more accurately events and personalities similar to those depicted in Jean Negulesco’s 1950 war melodrama “Three Came Home,” starring Claudette Colbert. Tale begins in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel on Feb. 10, 1942, when a military ball is interrupted by Japanese bombing. The women and children are put aboard a ship, which suffers a massive attack, with the survivors thrown into a camp. Though they are from different countries — and different social strata — the women are forced to find common ground in order to survive the brutalities of camp life.
Initial sequences jump around too much before the film settles on its half-dozen heroines: British Adrienne Pargiter (Close), a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music; Margaret “Daisy” Drummond (Collins), a gentle Australian missionary; Dr. Verstak (McDormand), the only German in camp; Australian nurse Susan McCarthy (Cate Blanchett); and Topsy Merritt (Julianna Margulies), the sole American in the group.
Early on, Margaret observes, “The thing they despise most are European women prisoners.” “That’s us,” says Adrienne, and a friendship evolves. Ensuing drama unfolds within two distinct frameworks: the antagonistic relationship between the women and their brutish Japanese captors, and the more interesting and complex relationships among the female prisoners themselves, who form a truly multinational unit.
Directly disobeying orders, Adrienne forms a vocal orchestra, in which she literally has to beg the members to participate — at risk of their lives. The arduous recruitment, the clandestine, often violently interrupted rehearsals, and public performances provide the most engaging moments of an otherwise sprawling story. But despite the uniqueness of the situation and its dramatis personae, “Paradise Road” falls victim to its generic format. The arguments and conflicts, concerning fights over food, suspicion, betrayal and collaboration with the enemy, recall such classic prison war movies as “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Stalag 17,” even if earlier renditions centered on male protagonists.
Worse yet, helmer stumbles into a predictable narrative rhythm: Almost every act of courage or defiance by the women is followed by an act of ruthless torture by the Japanese, and back again. This makes the film tediously repetitious, rambling from one episode to another with no strong, involving center. Beresford may have created too many characters for one drama, and he can’t maintain control over them — or give each more than a few sentences or a few identification traits. The dialogue — and humor — is often forced, as in the scenes between domineering Mrs. Roberts (Elizabeth Spriggs) and her sheepish daughter, Celia (Tessa Humphries), which are reminiscent of the Gladys Cooper-Deborah Kerr interaction in Terence Rattigan’s “Separate Tables.”
Still, Beresford’s humanistic approach, which often rises above these problems, conveys vividly how, despite chaos, hatred and strife, the women managed to create something pure and beautiful: music. This is all the more accentuated by the fact that the chorale didn’t perform popular songs, but highly intricate arrangements of classical music, such as Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” Beresford aims to show how ordinary women become extraordinary, but the film doesn’t deal sufficiently with their musical activities, instead paying too much attention to the more familiar details of camp survival.
Still, this well-intentioned, uplifting chronicle contains some genuinely touching moments, such as the scene in which Japanese guards are sent to break up the performance, but instead find themselves deeply moved by the music and thus refuse to silence the women. Or the contemptible castigation when a prisoner caught for dealing in the black market is set on fire in front of her terrified mates.
Of the large, international female cast, two thesps stand out. Close dominates every scene she’s in with her highly modulated performance, bringing her customary edge to the tough role of the choir’s conductor. Collins, as usual, radiates warmth and intelligence as the kind missionary who often mediates among the various factions.
As the cynical doctor who hides a secret about her past, McDormand, so brilliant in “Fargo,” here gives a stiff, one-dimensional performance (which is a function of the script), and her heavy German accent is no more than passable. A lively lineup of both young and veteran thesps fill out the large ensemble, adding color to the proceedings.
Shot mostly in Penang, Malaysia (standing in for Sumatra), pic boasts a strong sense of period verisimilitude, with particularly impressive contributions from lenser Peter James and production designer Herbert Pinter. Some of the music has survived the horror of the camps, as original members of the choir donated copies of their scores to various museums around the world.