No one has exploited the historical-epic form better than David Lean. At his peak he used its spaciousness and breadth to develop characters with conflicting points of view, so that audiences could feel viscerally swept away, emotionally engaged, and mentally sharpened, all at once. With the help of inspired actors he turned ironic figures into outsize tragic heroes -- like Alec Guinness' Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, a disciplinarian who gets carried away with his own cult of competence when he builds the best possible bridge for the Japanese.
Bruce Beresford is one of the few contemporary directors capable of matching Lean's mix of panoramic visuals, nuanced performances, and challenging split perspectives. Black Robe, his film about a 17th-century Jesuit priest's horrific trek through frontier Quebec, was the anti-Dances With Wolves, morally rigorous in its approach to Native Americans as well as to colonists and missionaries. At first glance, Beresford's latest, Paradise Road, resembles a women's version of Kwai: Glenn Close braves the brutality of Japanese guards and whips a campful of female POWs into shape. Yet the movie lacks Kwai's irony -- or, rather, the refraction of horror through ruefulness that could be more precisely labeled Kwairony. Beresford simply piles on torture and immolation and varies it with bits about the universality and healing power of music. This World War II story -- based on fact -- depicts a group of refugees from the fall of Singapore who form a choir under Close's conductorship. It's really a vocal orchestra: The women use their voices as instruments to perform symphonic works. The material might appear to possess built-in torment and catharsis -- sure-fire stuff for the movies. But catharsis never comes, because Beresford hasn't sufficiently shaped the drama or probed and clarified the issues. What he's done is slap together an atrocity-and-uplift sandwich.
Jumble up the gals-in-jungle-prison setting of Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice, the cultured-women-in-crisis subplots from '40s and '50s wartime melodramas like Three Came Home, and the rough-and-tumble bonding of male POW adventures. Add homespun poetry about noble death and a sprinkling of soaring voices and you have Paradise Road. Beresford must think that the music angle will elevate this film over its antecedents. Instead, we get cliches in classical drag. In the first reel, the movie's perfunctory characterization and epic action (the strafing and sinking of the refugee ship, the journey through unknown rain forest) call to mind an Irwin Allen disaster film. In the prison camp, the Australian, English, and American prisoners overcome their class biases as well as their prejudices toward Dutch nuns and Asians. There's really no revelation to scenes like a shower-stall brawl over the suspected theft of a soap bar; you're conscious only that the actresses are committed enough to flail in the nude. As the film unravels, it takes on the familiar contours of both German and Japanese prison-camp movies, with the Japanese equivalent of the SS lording it over the slightly-more-human army regulars. All that makes it different is Beresford's unblinking approach to monstrosities: One inmate is burned alive, another is pinned between spiked rods.
In the best escapist POW sagas -- like, well, The Great Escape -- an array of characters have defining functions: the scrounger, the tunneler, and so on. But in Paradise Road, only two women are crucial to the formation of the orchestra: Close (who's at her brittle worst portraying Anglo-Saxon virtue) and Pauline Collins, who plays a fubsy, lovable missionary with a musical knack. The others exist to provide either counterpoint or proof of the orchestra's transcendent grace. Perhaps the most jarringly atonal dramatic accompaniment comes from the game, often overrated Frances McDormand. She won an Oscar for plunking one note of cartoon goodness in Fargo. Here, as a German Jewish loner who sets herself up as the camp doctor, she makes herself even more unpleasant than the role requires. Her skepticism comes off as a form of sadism, and she's lit, framed, and made up to look like James Woods' even more evil twin sister.
McDormand just bulls her way through an impossible scene -- the doctor pulling gold from the teeth of dead patients. She explains that she's using the gold mostly for the good of her fellow inmates. But seeing a German Jew perform a deed associated with Nazi death camps has a multileveled ghastliness that Beresford can't control. The only dramatic arcs Beresford completes are trite and sudsy: like the fair-skinned beauty who pines away after she catches a glimpse of her beloved husband looking sick and defeated, or the old woman who overcomes her anti-Asian sentiment to practice for the choir with a Chinese lady. Julianna Margulies puts over a big moment or two, wondering whether she should join the "satin-sheet brigade" of prisoners turned pampered prostitutes; Johanna Ter Steege makes for a pretty nun, but when is she going to get a role equal to those she had in the original Dutch The Vanishing or in Altman's Vincent & Theo?
And when is Beresford going to make another great movie? Paradise Road comes at the end of a bad run (Silent Fall, Rich in Love, A Good Man in Africa). He hasn't lost a safety net of craftsmanship, or the worthy willingness to take a full-frontal look at anything. But his sensitivity and subtlety have deserted him. Even the miracle of the vocal orchestra is diminished by the hokiness surrounding it. Beresford doesn't figure out how to build up to the orchestra's emergence; they quickly achieve recording-studio quality and end up sounding as fake as the boy's choir in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. (Beresford employed the arrangements from the actual choir.) And having the most forbidding guard turn sappy under its aura rings terribly false; it's as if Beresford had pasted homilies in the margins of his shooting script, such as "Music soothes the savage breast." Beresford used an aria from a Dvorak opera movingly in Driving Miss Daisy. Here, when the women perform the Largo from Dvorak's New World symphony -- the spirituallike section that became the folk song "Goin' Home" -- they evoke pathos rather than indomitability. In the back of my mind, Paul Robeson began to moan, "I'm a goin' home" -- and I felt like following suit.