Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, A (1998)

There's something fresher, different in the new Ismail Merchant-James Ivory production, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, a film that deviates in several respects from the team's previous collaborations, best known for their tasteful, diffident, and restrained qualities. Based on Kaylie Jones' 1990 autobiographical novel, this emotionally touching drama offers a multi-layered, inter-generational view of an expatriate American family living in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s.

Given the right handling, October could score with this nicely mounted and acted picture (toplined by Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey) that should appeal to the art crowd that has supported the popular Merchant-Ivory productions of the last two decades.

Soldier's Daughter represents a return to form for Merchant and Ivory whose last films, Jefferson in Paris and Surviving Picasso, were severely misconceived failures. Returning to Paris, where they also shot Quartet and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, the reliable team gives their new saga a freer, looser form than their usual practice, allowing their superlative ensemble to develop richly dense characterizations. It certainly helps that the source material brims with candid insights about the ups and downs of an American family that may be slightly eccentric, but is decidedly and refreshingly not dysfunctional, as has been the norm in most recent screen family portraits.

The story is told from the point of view of the daughter, Channe, focusing on her relationships with her father, Bill Willis (Kristofferson), a successful ex-patriate writer, a WWII vet who's still haunted by his experiences in the Pacific. Male figure is based on Kaylie's father, novelist James Jones, who penned From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line (soon to be released as a movie). But the yarn doesn't neglect the other members, Marcella (Hershey), Bill's fun-loving, poker-playing wife, and Benoit (Samuel Gruen), a French orphan who, as the yarn begins, is brought to the family for adoption.

Picture is framed by an opening scene that reveals Benoit's biological mother (Virginie Ledoyen), a young, unmarried girl, sitting by her window and recording an intimate diary that will later assume a ritualistic meaning in the text. Structured as a novel, tale is divided into three segments, each named after a different protagonist. Among other achievements, Ivory and his vet scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have cleverly decided not to disclose the identity of Benoit's father and the circumstances of his birth almost up to the end.

When the first chapter, “Billy,” commences, Benoit is brought to the Willis household in Paris. Traumatically moved from one foster home to another, the 6-year-old boy keeps his suitcase packed, ready to be sent back to yet another orphanage. Though fully embraced by the parents, his presence has negative effects on young Channe (Luisa Conlon), who jealously retreats to the protective company of her loving Portuguese nanny, Candida (Dominique Blanc).

First reel feels like a classic French film about childhood, teeming with poignant observations of the authoritarian French school system. There's a lovely scene in which Marcella physically confronts a stern teacher for the punitive measures she has taken against her son. Once Benoit gets used to his new surroundings, he begins an assimilation process that culminates with his request to have his name changed to Billy.

“Francis,” the second act, records the intense friendship that evolves between Channe (Leelee Sobieski) and a sensitive, artistic boy, Francis Fortescue (Anthony Roth Costanzo), who's fatherless and lives with his expatriate British mother (Jane Birkin). Channe admires Francis' knowledge of opera, his dramatic skills and sophistication, but their bond becomes strained when she begins to show romantic interest in other boys, turning the already insecure Francis into a morose, withdrawn boy.

The children's world is suddenly and unceremoniously abrupted when their father announces his intention to return to the U.S., using his bad heart and his wish to be treated by American doctors as reasons. Last and most emotionally satisfying segment, “Daddy,” is set in the 1970s on the East Coast and chronicles Bill's deteriorating health and the painful coming of age of Billy and Channe.

Fitting in no better than she did in Paris, Channe begins having sex in the backseats of cars, searching for acceptance. In scenes that are as poignant and moving as those in Maurice Pialat's A Nos Amours (one of the best films about a father-daughter relationship), drama depicts something rarely seen in American films: a liberal father sharing intimate conversations with his daughter about boys and sex, effectively guiding her out of her ennui and alienation. Pic's apt title–which serves as motto–becomes utterly clear in the scenes in which Channe helps her dying father complete his final novel about WWII.

As expected, the trio of Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala, show their customary attention to the smallest details, based on their belief that there are no little or insignificant scenes. Though there are plenty of crescendos, most of the narrative has a natural swift, navigating the central quartet through the rapidly changing socio-political times, which includes Vietnam and Watergate. The warmth and compassion of Soldier's Daughter stand in diametric opposition to the detached, cynical tone of Myth of the Fingerprints and The Ice Storm, a family meller set in the same historical time. Encouraging the audience to emphasize with each member, the filmmakers should be commended for constructing a “normal and healthy” family that becomes extraordinary without ever losing its compassion or humanity.

In the lead role, the graceful Sobieski registers strongly as a potential star, combining physical charm as well as technical skills. The beautiful Hershey has shown before what a terrifically versatile actress she is, when cast in a substantial role, which this one certainly is. Bradford, who excelled as the hero of Soderbergh's King of the Hill, has matured into an interesting adolescent. But the real surprise is Kristofferson, whose career has often suffered from being typecast as the “sensitive male.” Just when it seems that Kristofferson was playing variations of the same part over and over, thesp soars with a multi-dimensional portrait of a confidently assured but vulnerable patriarch.

Accomplished as the adaptation is, Soldier's Daughter still feels like a compressed novel and is occasionally plagued by rough editing, a possible result of trying to cram as many episodes as possible within a 2-hour-frame. French lenser Jean-Marc Fabre, in his first solo assignment, should be credited for endowing this Merchant-Ivory production with a more energetic and even messier look than their previous, more characteristic Masterpiece Theater style.

An October Films release of a Merchant Ivory production. Produced by Ismail Merchant. Executive producers, Richard Hawley, Nayeem Hafizka. Co-executive producers, Sharon Harel, Jane Barclay. Co-producer, Paul Bradley. Directed by James Ivory. Screenplay, Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Camera (color), Jean-Marc Fabre; editor, Noelle Boisson; music, Richard Robbins; production design, Jacques Bunoir (France), Pat Garner (USA); costume design, Carol Ramsey; sound (Dolby), Ludovic Henault; casting, Annette Trumel (France), Tricia Tomey (USA), Celestia Fox (UK).

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 127 min.

Bill Willis………….Kris Kristofferson
Marcella Willis…………Barbara Hershey
Channe Willis…………..Leelee Sobieski
Billy Willis…………….Jesse Bradford
Francis Fortescue….Anthony Roth Costanzo
Candida………………..Dominique Blanc
Mrs. Fortescue……………..Jane Birkin
Billy's mother…………Virginie Ledoyen
Benoit……………………Samuel Gruen
Young Channe………………Luisa Conlon
Mamadou……………….Isaac de Bankole