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Film review: Paradise Road

'Paradise Road' is punishing purgatory of Hollywood phoniness.

Published: Sunday, May 11 1997 12:01 a.m. MDT

On the surface, "Paradise Road" seems like the kind of movie that will most certainly bring up a strong emotional response in the audience. After all, you have big stars, a respected writer-director at the helm and a true story that is at once familiar but also has a unique twist.

Sadly, my response was cold and reserved. "Paradise Road" does have many interesting elements, but the flaws are many — and some are quite annoying.

"Paradise Road" was written and directed by Bruce Beresford, who came into prominence with a similarly themed film ("Breaker Morant") and then hit it big with a glossy Hollywood crowd-pleaser ("Driving Miss Daisy").

Glenn Close heads the ensemble cast in this fact-based World War II story about women fleeing Australia on board a ship when it is destroyed by Japanese fighter planes. Captured survivors are sent to the island of Sumatra, where they spend years in a prison camp in appalling conditions, and starvation and humiliation are the order of the day.

Needless to say, their spirits rapidly flag. Some even choose to prostitute themselves to the Japanese in return for better living conditions and edible food.

But a few stout-hearted women in the group — led by Close and Pauline Collins ("Shirley Valentine") — form a choir to lift their spirits. Under Close's direction, the women hum the various parts of classical music orchestrations, re-created from memory.

Close's character is a trendy prep-school type whose demeanor is one of sophistication and breeding, and she seldom lets down her guard. Collins plays a sweet, cheery missionary who helps Close recruit other women around the compound to form a "vocal orchestra" — which is done in secret, lest they incur the wrath of the Japanese soldiers.

Among the wide array of prominent characters are a German doctor with a secret (recent Oscar-winner Frances McDormand), the lone American in the camp (Julianna Margulies, of TV's "ER") and an Aussie nurse (played by Australian star Cate Blanchett).

Among the problems are writer-Beresford's script, which is overplotted and has far too many characters coming and going; director-Beresford's penchant for gruesome violence and torture, which puts the film's brutality level at odds with the more uplifting tone it tries to achieve; and, most surprisingly, McDormand's cartoony German accent. The film is also rife with cliches and dumb jokes about the Japanese.

The overall result is a Hollywood phoniness that simply never lets up, no matter how hard the cast members try to make things more realistic.

If you're interested in the story, there may be enough good in "Paradise Road" to make the film worthwhile. But it should have been much more emotionally engaging.

"Paradise Road" is rated R for violence, gore, nudity and vulgarity.