Hum Job

Paradise Road

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

PARADISE ROAD DEMON-strates the difference between having an experience and telling a story. Fully detailed in terms of what happened to dozens of women taken prisoner by the Japanese during WWII, it's packed with incident. But it doesn't really tell a story, at least not in the way conventional screenwriters think of stories. Apart from the obvious--war begins, war ends, some survive and some don't--there's no directional "arc," no compelling nugget that needs to be discovered before the lights come on again. Facing this lack, the film also has the nerve to match up characters and clichés from a very old menu with the untold truths about what some real women went through in the jungles of Sumatra.

Depending on your expectations of star vehicles and harrowing survival epics, this would seem like a failure in the making. But I kind of liked Paradise Road, mainly because it wasn't as sweeping as it might have been. I also kind of pity it for not realizing there was a harder and more intriguing piece of experimental possibility within the whole enterprise. Because it's from Australia and uses classical music as a plot device, there's a temptation to say it's a duller Shine. But let's hop around the old Commonwealth and find a different comparative option: It's a wannabe and coulda-been Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

Paradise Road pieces together its length from the diverse reactions of a mixed crew of women who share the same fate. As the Japanese take over Singapore, they are sent off (with some kids and servants) on a boat to safety. The boat is bombed; the survivors float ashore to be reunited in a prison camp. In its bad accommodations and insensitivity to suffering (or the Geneva Convention), the camp rivals the one Alec Guinness endured in The Bridge on the River Kwai--except that here there's no bridge to build and then blow up. This makes for a missing plot device but, conveniently, Mrs. Pargiter (Glenn Close) had been a music student once, and thinks getting the women to form a choir to hum symphonic classics would be a smashing way to pass the time.

They don't tackle the opening of Beethoven's Fifth, but even though it really did happen, this choir business is at first an unpromising, potentially over-symbolic idea. Will these mostly upper-class women show the savage Nipponese the healing powers of European high culture? Will the movie soar away on wings of Dvorak and Ravel? I don't want to see that movie, and luckily writer/director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Black Robe) didn't make it. Instead, he ambles back and forth between many different character relationships. He stops in to check on the choir from time to time, but he makes it clear there were differences of class, nation, morality, and courage among these women. They are united, most of them, only in their grubbiness--and their willingness to hum.

Okay, so the first big piece they do is the "Going Home" melody from The New World Symphony, but since there are no words involved it's more of an in-joke told to millions of viewers. They do, however, deal with their differences in often contrived fashion: The Urbane Asian Devil, a movie standby since at least 1915, shows up to chat coldly with the women (in English) about how he has absolutely no sympathy. The rich fat lady with a pet dog, who needs to accept those beneath her, gets far too much screen time. The innocent Dutch virgin gets worldly advice from both the English professional model and the embittered Jewish Austrian "doctor."

These catalog items made me wince, but on the other hand the tight-lipped Austrian is played by Frances McDormand, miles away from our pal Marge the sheriff in both accent and body language. The sweet model is Jennifer Ehle, fondly recalled from TV's six-hour Pride and Prejudice; the slangy American is Julianna Margulies from E.R.; the brilliant but humble missionary/choral arranger is Pauline Collins, famed for Shirley Valentine. Even if their lines are clichés at times--and even without Glenn Close's restrained righteousness--this is a cast worth watching.

But: Since Beresford doesn't much bother to explore any one of them in great detail, he might well have stood even further back to observe some more intriguing bits and pieces. The opportunity to watch a great cast (bathed in impressive cinematography, of course) find its own way piecemeal through some ideas about torture, survival, art, and sisterhood would be more of a puzzle--but also a puzzle more worth solving. As befits its musical milieu, Paradise Road could have been Enigma Variations rather than Ode to Joy.

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