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20th Century Fox presents
"I've tried, but I just can't bring myself to hate people. The worse they behave, the sorrier I feel for them."
DVD ReviewTaking its title from a line of poetry by Margaret Dryburgh, Paradise Road is a film based on the real life experiences of hundreds of women (mostly European and Australian) held captive by the Japanese at Belalau concentration camp on the Pacific island of Sumatra during World War II. The script is partially based on the diaries of captive Betty Jeffrey and on the reminiscences of other captives, some of who are still alive today.
The film opens at a gala soldiers' ball held at Singapore's luxury Raffles Hotel in February 1942. The camera moves from character to character, giving us a taste of their lives before the war tears them apart. The conversation and social graces are so snooty and pretentious that it is literally a relief for the viewer when artillery shells start exploding outside, spoiling the scene. Upon official word from an Australian army officer, the ball comes to a screeching halt. The Japanese have broken through the Allied lines and are now marching on the city. All military personnel are to return to duty. All women and children are to be evacuated by ship from the island. Under artillery barrage, they board the Prince Albert and steam away, presumably to safety. However, the ship is strafed and bombed by Japanese fighters while off the coast of Sumatra and it sinks like a stone, leaving its surviving crew and passengers floating in the sea. Some swim to shore and are captured on land, others are picked up by a passing Japanese warship.
All the English- and Dutch-speaking women and children are herded into a makeshift concentration camp surrounded by hostile jungle. The Japanese captors are not bent on genocide, only on harsh discipline, torture, and humiliation. The captives are forced to perform back-breaking labor and are rewarded with a very scant diet, no medicine, and very little in the way of proper sanitation and personal hygiene facilities. Many of these women and children do not survive the brutal three and a half years between their capture and their eventual liberation by Allied troops. A few, as punishment for indiscretions, are executed by their captors. Most of the casualties, however, are from tropical diseases, such as malaria or from sheer exhaustion.
Central to the story is the formation of a "vocal orchestra" by two of the captives. Lacking instruments, a group of women defy camp rules against organized congregation and, working from sheet music written on scrap paper from the memory of one of the prisoners, create a choral group that hums pieces of classical music. The result, while somewhat primitive, is glorious music that not only adds beauty and purpose to their bleak lives, it also helps to partially win over many of their captors as well.
Paradise Road's strong suits are most definitely its cast and the performances they give. Glenn Close is strong as always in the film's primary role as Adrienne Pargiter, the vocal orchestra's conductor. The orchestra's inspiration and spiritual leader, Margaret 'Daisy' Drummond, is played by British journeywoman Pauline Collins. Australian Cate Blanchett, virtually unknown at the time, plays a timid Australian nurse who finds inner strength she never knew she had from her ordeal. I would be remiss not to mention Frances McDormand, playing a German Jewish refugee who serves as the camp's doctor. The German accent that McDormand brandishes in this film is truly unfortunate. By the end, she was reminding me strongly of Natasha from The Bullwinkle Show. ER veteran Julianna Margulies, Jennifer Ehle, and Wendy Hughes all fill less prominent roles. To a man and woman, the performances are good or better and much can be said about the actresses' willingness to spend most of their time on screen, caked with dirt and sans makeup.
Australian Bruce Beresford is one of the most inconsistent directors working in the industry today. Among his universally praised efforts are such films as 1990 Best Picture Oscar® winner Driving Miss Daisy, 'Breaker' Morant, and Tender Mercies (1984 Best Picture Oscar® nominee). Among his universally panned efforts are 1985's King David and 1994's A Good Man in Africa. One could sarcastically argue that Paradise Road is refreshing in that it is neither great nor dreadfully bad. Rather, it is simply mediocre. In addition to a solid collection of strong performances from the cast, the film also features an array of beautiful photographic images of the camp's tropical surroundings. What the film lacks, however, is strong emotional impact. This was a worthy subject and such a film should elicit a visceral and heartbreaking response from its audience. Paradise Road fails, almost entirely, to do that. With the removal of a non-sexual nude scene, some of the more violent images and with the addition of Susan Lucci to the cast, this effort could almost be mistaken for a made-for-TV "movie of the week" melodrama.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, Paradise Road features a very nice anamorphic transfer. All the makings of a pleasing visual experience are present. Colors are rich and solid with realistic flesh tones. Blacks are deep and shadow delineation is good. Clarity is very good. Additionally, the image was mastered from a very clean print as there is little in the way of dirt or blemishing present.
There appears to be a slight problem with frame refresh rate for about five seconds at the very beginning of chapter thirteen. Whether this is original to the print or from the digital conversion I cannot say. Other than that, this is a very good looking disc.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Paradise Road also does well on the auditory front with its primary Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Dialogue and music are very rich from the front sound stage with the original score being bolstered by the surrounds. Dialogue is crisp and clear. Nice use of LFE can be detected, especially early in the film (Japanese shelling of Singapore, fighter attack on the Prince Albert). Rich and sometimes directional use of the surrounds is present in many scenes. A heavy rainstorm scene later in the film is just one example. Unfortunately, use of the surround channels tends to be a bit inconsistent with a few scenes, such as during the soldier's ball in Singapore, wherein these channels remain largely dormant.
Paradise Road also features a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track in both English and dubbed French.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Titus, Smilla's Sense of Snow, Grand Canyon, Inventing the Abbotts, Ice Storm
Extras Review: Paradise Road comes with the theatrical trailer as well as five trailers for other Fox DVD titles. Of the five, four are also being released on March 13 (Titus being the lone exception).
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsWell cast and acted and beautiful photographed, Paradise Road should be an effective and heartrending dramatic experience. It isn't.
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