Paradise Road Review

by Adam Joyce (9706360s AT magpie DOT magill DOT unisa DOT edu DOT au)
June 3rd, 1997

    A film review by Adam Joyce
    Copyright 1997 Adam Joyce

For the women in this film paradise is freedom, and the road to freedom is a long and arduous one along which many will fall.
As the sun set over Singapore on the 10th February 1942, all women and children were ordered to evacuate before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. They were packed onto undersized marine vessels destined for Australia and England, many of these were sunk by Japanese bombers as they headed south. This was the fate of those aboard the Prince Albert in Bruce Beresford’s ‘Paradise Road’, and those who managed to swim to the shores of Sumatra could be considered by some as less fortunate than those who did not.
‘Paradise Road’ is based on the true story of a group of women and children who were captured and taken to a Japanese POW camp after swimming to the shores of Sumatra from their sinking ship. It follows the hardships they face in a squaller of a camp in which the Japanese soldiers seem to have no compassion, and in which the women are treated worse than animals. As a means of defiance some of the women form a choir. It is the uniting power of music that gives many of the women the strength to continue, and is of such beauty that even the Japanese guards refuse to stop it. Bruce Beresford, as the writer and director of ‘Paradise Road’ has managed to capture the despair and desolation which the women feel, and despite the death which surrounds them, hope is ever present in those with the will. He has also provided a contrast to the despair with humour, which is drawn from the situation in which the women find themselves. This has been done particularly well, and the audience finds themselves laughing one minute and crying the next, being carried with the story, and empathising strongly with the characters.
There are plenty of actors who will be recognised by Australian audiences in ‘Paradise Road’. Glenn Close plays the lead character, Adrienne Pargiter, a British wife of a tea planter, who with a musical background becomes the conductor of the women’s choir. Her leadership in this position is representative of her role throughout the film, her courage and determination inspiring many of the other women not to give up. Pauline Collins plays a British missionary, Margaret Drummond, who with Adrienne forms, to use Margaret’s very apt description, ‘a vocal orchestra’. Frances McDormand, who has a remarkable ability to take on extraordinarily different characters plays Dr Verstak, a German Jew, who in McDormand’s unique style is somewhat odd, but quite charismatic. Australian Cate Blanchett makes her big screen debut playing Susan Macarthy, an Australian nursing sister. After this performance there can be little doubt that we will see her again in feature films. These actors are in addition to many other faces which will light a spark of recognition in audiences. The cinematography, especially the shots filmed in Penang, are spectacular. The mountains which surround the camp provide a stunningly beautiful and tranquil backdrop, which is a startling contrast to the filthy camp and the graphic violence of the Japanese guards, which is particularly disturbing. The vocal orchestra brings the women together, despite their different backgrounds. Although death surrounds them like a sheaf, this only provides them with more reason to shine through in the face of adversity. It is quite difficult to believe that the sound of a group of singing women could be powerful enough to prevent typically aggressive guards from breaking up a prohibited gathering. But the singing literally passes right through you, sending shivers up your spine. It has to be heard to be believed. See, feel and hear ‘Paradise Road’ for yourself.

4 out of 5

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