A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries

Director: James Ivory

The case for Merchant-Ivory (the team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory) is that, over the years, they have maintained a distinctive and civilised brand of film-making that owes little to contemporary cinematic fashion and everything to their own tastes and convictions. Recurrent themes (notably the interest in cultural clash) and typical sylistic flourishes (like Ivory’s fondness for the set-piece, whether it be a dinner or a dance) have gradually assumed the characteristics of a personal signature, a familiarity that has bred either affection or contempt.
After the disappointing failure of their last two films (Jefferson in Paris and Surviving Picasso), A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries finds the team back on something like their top form. This is another literary adaptation, again written by the producer-director’s regular collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A Soldier’s Daughter is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones, whose father James wrote From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. It is the story of an American family living in Paris in the ’60s and ’70s, told from the point of view of the daughter, Channe (Leelee Sobieski). The father, Bill Willis (Kris Kristofferson), is a successful expatriate writer, a World War Two veteran haunted by his experiences in the Pacific. His wife, Marcella (a vibrant Barbara Hershey), is an emotional, fun-loving woman who is fiercely protective of her children, including an adopted French boy, Benoit.
The cultural and social divides that animate so many of the Merchant-Ivory films are present at a number of levels, Benoit, who has been moved around from foster home to foster home, keeps his suitcase packed, ready at a moments notice to be sent back to an orphanage. He and Channe attends a bi-lingual school, where they both struggle to be accepted. Channe befriends another outsider, Francis (Anthony Roth Costanzo), the fatherless son of an expatriate British mother (Jane Birkin). After much tenderness and reassurance from Bill and Marcella, Benoit relinquishes his suitcase and asks to have his name changed to Billy. But the children face new adjustments when the family moves to America because of the father’s failing health.
A Soldier’s Daughter has a freer, looser form than most of Ivory’s recent films. The visual style is closer to the naturalism of French cinema than the pictorialism of Ivory’s classic period dramas. There is a freshness about the new film, and a very welcome frankness about its treatment of family relationships. There are some wonderful scenes involving the liberal, matter-of-fact father sharing intimate conversations with his daughter about boys and sex. Equally impressive is the subtle way the film depicts the father’s unfussy treatment of his adopted son, who is allowed the space to develop his own sense of identity. Like previous Ivory films, A Soldier’s Daughter presents a series of different perspectives, and the division of the film into three different chapters amounts to more than a literary device. As in Heat and Dust, the new film encompasses two generations and twe different continents, giving its themes a prodigious sense of time and space.
If Ivory has one quality above all others, it is his skill with actresses. Confirming his particular ability to bring out the best to young performers, relative newcomer Leelee Sobieski is outstanding in a brilliant ensemble cast. The male actors also do much better here than in most Ivory films, and it’s especially pleasing to see the director draw out previously hidden talents in the usually typecast Kris Kristofferson. Exploring complex issues about culture, family and identity with customary attention to detail, A Soldier’s Daughter shows the strengths of Merchant-Ivory productions being restored in all their essentials.

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