There’s something fresh and different in the new Ismail Merchant-James Ivory production, “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries,” which deviates in several respects from the team’s previous collaborations, best known for their tasteful, restrained qualities. Based on Kaylie Jones’ 1990 autobiographical novel, the touching drama offers a multilayered, intergenerational view of an expatriate American family living in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s. Given the right handling, October could score with this nicely mounted, superbly acted picture, which should appeal to the art crowd that has supported Merchant Ivory productions over the last two decades.
“Soldier’s Daughter” represents a return to form for Merchant Ivory, whose last films, “Jefferson in Paris” and “Surviving Picasso,” were severely misconceived. The filmmakers give new saga a freer, looser form than is usual, allowing a superlative ensemble to develop rich characterizations. It certainly helps that the source material brims with candid insights about the ups and downs of a family that may be slightly eccentric but is decidedly, and refreshingly, not dysfunctional.
The story is told from the point of view of the daughter, Channe, focusing on her relationships with her father, Bill Willis (Kris Kristofferson), a successful expatriate writer and World War II vet who’s still haunted by his experiences in the Pacific. Male figure is based on Kaylie’s father, novelist James Jones, who penned “From Here to Eternity” and “The Thin Red Line” (Terence Malick’s bigscreen version of the latter is set for Christmas release). But the film doesn’t neglect the other members of the family, Marcella (Barbara Hershey), Bill’s fun-loving, poker-playing wife, and Benoit (Samuel Gruen), a French orphan who, as the yarn begins, is brought to the family for adoption.
Pic’s opening scene reveals Benoit’s biological mother (Virginie Ledoyen), a young, unmarried girl, sitting by her window and writing a diary that will assume significance in the unfolding story. Structured as a novel, tale is divided into three segments, each named after a different protagonist. Among other achievements, helmer Ivory and his vet scripter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, cleverly withhold the circumstances of Benoit’s birth and the identity of his father almost to the end.
When the first chapter, “Billy,” commences, Benoit is brought to the Willis household in Paris. Traumatically moved from one foster home to another, the 6-year-old boy keeps his suitcase packed, ready to be sent back to yet another orphanage. Though he’s fully embraced by the parents, his presence has negative effects on young Channe (Luisa Conlon), who jealously retreats to the protective company of her loving Portuguese nanny, Candida (Dominique Blanc).
First reel feels like a classic French film about childhood, teeming with poignant observations on the authoritarian French school system. There’s a lovely scene in which Marcella physically confronts a stern teacher for the punitive measures she has taken against her son. Once Benoit gets used to his new surroundings, he begins an assimilation process that culminates with his request to have his name changed to Billy.
“Francis,” the second act, records the intense friendship that evolves between Channe (Leelee Sobieski) and a sensitive, artistic boy, Francis Fortescue (Anthony Roth Costanzo), who’s fatherless and lives with his expatriate British mother (Jane Birkin). Channe admires Francis’ knowledge of opera, his dramatic skills and sophistication, but their bond becomes strained when she begins to show romantic interest in other boys.
The children’s world is suddenly and unceremoniously transformed when their father announces his intention to return to the U.S. in order to be treated by American doctors for his bad heart. Last and most emotionally satisfying segment, “Daddy,” is set in the 1970s on the East Coast and chronicles Bill’s deteriorating health and the painful coming of age of Billy (Jesse Bradford) and Channe.
Fitting in no better than she did in Paris, Channe begins having sex in the back seats of cars, searching for acceptance. In scenes that are as poignant and moving as those in Maurice Pialat’s “A nos amours” (one of the best films about a father-daughter relationship), drama depicts something rarely seen in American films: a liberal father sharing intimate conversations with his daughter about boys and sex, effectively guiding her out of her ennui and alienation.
Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala show their customary attention to the smallest details, based on their belief that there are no little or insignificant scenes. Though there are plenty of crescendos, most of the narrative has a natural swiftness, navigating the central quartet through the rapidly changing times. The warmth and compassion of “Soldier’s Daughter” stand in diametric opposition to the detached, cynical tone of “The Ice Storm,” a family meller set in the same period. Encouraging the audience to empathize with each major character, the filmmakers should be commended for constructing a “normal and healthy” family that becomes extraordinary without losing its compassion or humanity.
In the lead role, the graceful Sobieski registers strongly as a potential star, combining physical charm with technical skill. Given a substantial role, the beautiful Hershey again demonstrates a terrific versatility. Bradford, who excelled as the hero of Soderbergh’s “King of the Hill,” has matured into an interesting adolescent.
But the real surprise is Kristofferson, who has often suffered from being typecast as the “sensitive male.” Just when it seemed that the thesp was playing variations of the same part over and over, he soars with a multidimensional portrait of an assured but vulnerable patriarch.
Accomplished as the adaptation is, “Soldier’s Daughter” still feels like a compressed novel and is occasionally plagued by rough editing, a possible result of trying to cram as many episodes as possible within a two-hour frame. French lenser Jean-Marc Fabre, in his first solo assignment, should be credited for endowing this Merchant Ivory production with a more energetic and messier look than their usual “Masterpiece Theater” style.