Shortly after Japanese fighter planes strafe a shipload of women and children at the start of the World War II drama "Paradise Road," a Japanese officer states the obvious. "The time for rules is over," he informs three survivors.
Then, in case anyone has missed the point, a soldier savagely beats one of them.
Just that quickly, director and screenwriter Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy") makes clear that the first thing war destroys is convention. If women and children can be brutalized, then all other underpinnings in life are equally at risk.
But if those staples of civilized life include humanity and decency, Beresford shows that in the disintegrating world of 1942, they might also be racism and nationalism and sexism. Universal misery is a great equalizer.
"Paradise Road" is a variation on an old favorite, the World War II POW movie. It is a cross between "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Playing for Time," a television movie about female Auschwitz prisoners who form an orchestra. Like those films, "Paradise Road" concerns itself with the struggle to maintain humanity in the face of wanton cruelty, but Beresford updates the tale with a '90s political consciousness.
Unfortunately, he's so busy being high-minded, he forgets to be engaging, particularly after the film's rousing beginning, when the Japanese bombard Singapore and sink the Prince Albert.
Once the survivors are reassembled in a wretched jungle camp, Beresford doesn't know what to do with them, other than having them endure acts of senseless cruelty and bouts of malaria. Oh, and have them form a choir, an uninvolving reprisal of "Playing for Time" not helped by the fact that it is based on actual events.
Beresford is better at showing the casual intolerance and ignorance that characterized the lives of these Western women before war abducted them. He even suggests that those shortcomings contribute to the suffering they endure at the hands of the Japanese.
When they are first captured, a sadistic guard rails at the Europeans for their condescension toward Asians. Now, he says, they will pay for that arrogance.
It is not as though these women were wrested from lives of enlightenment. As they flee Singapore, they introduce themselves by way of their husbands' occupations and titles. Those connections alone create their identities.
Initially, the women are weighted by their old prejudices. The English look down on the Australians who look down on the Dutch who look down on the Chinese. Only in their joint struggle to survive beatings, hunger and malaria do the prejudices slip away.
Beresford is aiming for inspiration. He falls short because his characters never really connect. It's not that the performances are bad, only that Beresford is so egalitarian about screen time for his international cast that none of them gains much purchase on our emotions.
Lack of screen time, though, is not Glenn Close's excuse. She plays Adrienne Pargiter, an upper-class British woman who organizes the choir.
Adrienne is all courage and saintliness, so much so that she never approximates anything recognizably human. You can never imagine what's going on behind those alert eyes.
Fresh off her Oscar performance in "Fargo," Frances McDormand, as a not particularly likable German-Jewish doctor, does better. At least she manages a bit of irony. It's the accent that undoes her. You'd give anything to hear a well-placed "You betcha" from her. Instead, you get bad Marlene Dietrich.
Interestingly, the actors who register most strongly are the Japanese captors, particularly the disengaged camp commandant, Sab Shimono, and Japanese interpreter David Chung. In their wistful eyes, you can see that brutality extracts a cost from the perpetrators as well as the victims. Thankfully, Beresford isn't so naive as to grant them absolution.
Starring Glenn Close and Frances McDormand
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Released by Fox Searchlight
Rated R (violence, brief nudity)
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 4/25/97