Monday, March 07, 2016

Mrs. Soffel (1984)

Film: Mrs. Soffel (1984)
Stars: Diane Keaton, Mel Gibson, Matthew Modine, Edward Herrmann
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Oscar History: While it wasn't nominated, Keaton landed a Globe nod for Best Actress in a Drama, so you know it was pretty close.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

It's hard to remember now (really, really hard), but at one point everyone in America loved Mel Gibson.  Like really and truly loved Mel Gibson, and it wasn't always because he was a major action star whose children always seemed to be getting kidnapped and the government was out to get him while he mooned the British.  No, it was because Mel Gibson was perhaps the prettiest man in the world circa 1984, and was a devastatingly romantic leading man.  The plot and progression of a film like Mrs. Soffel, of which I've always been curious because it was during that period where Diane Keaton was doing almost entirely straight dramas and yet only once got an Oscar nomination while dominating at the Golden Globes post-Reds.  I came away with perhaps a realization as to why they didn't like Keaton at the time, but also as to why it was so disappointing when Mel Gibson turned around and we all realized he was a bigot.

(Spoilers Ahead) For those unfamiliar, Diane Keaton plays Kate Soffel, the wife of a Pittsburgh prison warden who has in his jail two wildly celebrated outlaw brothers who have become cause celebre for the women of the town, all of whom seem to be in love with them after seeing their pictures in the paper.  Kate has been very ill for months (perhaps postpartum depression or some bout of mental illness, it's never quite clear what is the problem), but decides to start to read biblical verses to the two men and then slowly falls in love with the older brother Ed (Gibson) and plans a prison break for both brothers where she escapes with them, running out on her husband and four children.  The law catches up with the three of them, with Kate nearly dying in a shootout that takes the lives of Ed and Jack (Modine), and eventually she loses pretty much everything that she once held dear as her warden husband and children turn their backs on Mrs. Soffel when she heads to prison.

The film is dour and dark, and Keaton is oddly out-of-place in my opinion as the aging Mrs. Soffel.  We get some of the casting here, and I wish director Gillian Armstrong had played a little bit more on the way that self-esteem played into this (Keaton is a striking woman, but is less conventionally attractive than Gibson, and that's a part of the dialogue here as it's never completely clear if Ed is using her as a means-to-an-end or if he's actually in love with her until very late in the film), but that doesn't rear its head frequently enough in the movie.  Keaton is a fine dramatic actress, as witnessed by her powerful Louise in Reds, but here I feel like she tries too hard to simply present a dour-and-introverted face without enough outburst of feeling.  It's odd to see Keaton in this sort of environment, quite frankly, in the same way it's bizarre to be reminded of what Meryl Streep was like before Devil Wears Prada made her so much more wink-y in her dramatic work, but I do wish we'd seen some sort of relaxation in the performance, particularly earlier on in the film when she had the upper-hand on Ed.

Gibson is, I'm sorry to admit if you're a hater and I feel like I am at this point, quite good.  He's not a great actor but he's an insanely charming movie star and someone that is intense and expressive, which is what this role calls for; you get the sense that you too would leave your upper-class life and children behind just for a chance to see what he's like when you get rid of the prison bars, and it's hard to blame Diane Keaton (she should have pleaded temporary hormonal insanity-any judge that saw a photo of him would allow it).  Again, here it seems like a female director helped in a way that a male director would have sort of glossed over the situation, as Armstrong makes a point of showing that it was lust, and not just moral fervor or romantic adoration, that got Kate to free Ed.  This, plus the weird sexual power dynamic makes the film more than just a dismissible curiosity, even though the picture feels a bit drab and dusty thirty some years after its release.

There are my thoughts-how about yours?  Anyone a fan of Mrs. Soffel?  What are your thoughts on a pre-drunk driving Mel Gibson?  How about a straight-dramatic Diane Keaton?  Share your thoughts below in the comments!

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