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Review: 'A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries,' she just fades away

Web posted on: Wednesday, September 30, 1998 3:37:36 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I've already gone on record several times in the past as not being completely sold on the films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. With a couple of exceptions, their movies play like well-dressed reiterations of every other movie they've ever made -- the houses, the horses, the money, the unbearably stifled passion.

Sometimes it works beautifully (as in "A Room With a View," "The Remains of the Day," and parts of "Howards End"). Quite often, though, sitting through a Merchant-Ivory production can be something akin to watching an incredibly well-read person varnish an antique table. It's nice that they care enough to do it, and they have admirable taste. After a while, though, I just feel like somebody needs to put down that varnish, extract the stick from their wazoo, and have a little bit of fun.

Theatrical preview for "A Solider's Daughter Never Cries"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Clip: "I'm a writer's daughter"

Video clip: 2Mb QuickTime

I hardly ever mention what other critics are saying about the films I cover, because, frankly, I don't much care what they have to say about them. But this time I'll make an exception -- I'm fairly shocked by the mostly positive notices that this movie has been receiving.

There's no denying the class with which these people mount a production. The costumes and period detail are right on target as always, and the photography is great. It just seems by now that that would be a given; it reminds me of the critics who wrote that "The Lost World" was a bummer, but it was still worthwhile because the special effects were spectacular. Well, what the hell, do you think Steven Spielberg's gonna suddenly revert to hand puppets?

What's most amazing, though, is the amount of slack people immediately want to cut Merchant-Ivory. I agree that they're doing commendable work as a whole, and the film industry would be well served if more producers tried to present intelligent stories with at least a modicum of style and taste.

Kris Kristofferson finding new screen life

The problem here is that "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" is simply not a very good film. With one exception, the characterizations are sketchy at best, and plot lines don't conclude so much as they eventually fizzle out and fade from view. Small moments that don't amount to much of anything at all are given far too much screen time; then an obviously huge moment (like a mother's miscarriage) happens out of the blue, and is barely alluded to after that.

Book adapted, poorly

I think this is the least successful movie Merchant-Ivory has come up with since "Slaves of New York" (although I'll admit to having missed "Jefferson in Paris" -- I was reading a textbook that day). Ivory shares a rare co-writing credit this time with the creative team's usual screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, so maybe that's why nothing flows with any sense of urgency. Too many cooks. Another reason is that they've adapted a book that's based on a real life without attempting to bend it into a sensible movie format.

The problem here is that "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" is simply not a very good film.

"A Soldier's Daughter Never Dies" was originally a novel written by Kaylie Jones, the daughter of author James Jones ("From Here to Eternity" and "The Thin Red Line;" the latter will be appearing in theaters at Christmastime as a highly-anticipated Terrence Malick film). Jones (in the guise of a character named Channe) wrote a thinly veiled account of growing up with her father, bored mother, and adopted brother in France and the United States during the turbulence of the 1960s.

That's exactly what happens in the movie, too, to a fault. The day-to-day existence of the Bill Willis family (Jones' fictional name for her father) tries to serve as the basis for a movie when, in fact, it's better suited for simple day-to-day existence. The movie gets nowhere very slowly, with episodic anecdotes stringing you along in the vain hope that it'll eventually add up to something. Basically, it doesn't.

Kris Kristofferson plays the warm-hearted writer (Barbara Hershey is the mother), but until the latter part of the film, when an illness makes him a more significant part of his daughter's life, he might as well be playing Danny Thomas in "Make Room for Daddy." For most of the movie, we know nothing (and I mean nothing) about the character except that he's a writer and likes to watch old movies on TV.

Little for daughter to cry about

He dispenses some craggy wisdom every now and then, although it seems to me that the girl (well-played in her teen years by Leelee Sobieski, who looks a great deal like a young Helen Hunt) would be just as safe if she negotiated her angst on her own. Nothing Dad tells her is particularly earth-shaking, especially the silly-goose advice of the title. She doesn't have all that much to cry about, anyway, when you get right down to it.

We see young Channe growing up pretty much like the rest of us did, except that you've got the Merchant-Ivory-brand tormented housekeeper (played by Dominique Blanc), fancy duds, and a nice house in the background. There's a sprinkling of sexual confusion, social awkwardness, an eccentric first boyfriend (very gratingly played by Anthony Roth Costanzo, who I wanted to choke after a while), and a little bit of flowering writing talent thrown in for good measure.

The sudden move to America when Kristofferson's character gets sick isn't very well-integrated, either. Everything you've been following in the story is basically dropped like a hot potato when the family packs up the tent, then we get a new set of circumstances in the States.

If anyone else had been this sloppy and unfocused, they'd be getting raked over the critical coals right now, but Merchant-Ivory seems to have gotten the right shots. Even when they don't pull off what they're trying to do, people insist on giving them the credit for having tried so hard. Well, I give them credit for that, too, but not enough to make me say that this is a good film. Varnish your own table this time.

"A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" contains a smattering of bad language and sexual situations. Costanzo's performance may freeze your face in a perpetual grimace. Rated R. 124 minutes, because art takes longer.

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