A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Bruce Beresford's “Paradise Road” tells the story of a group of women who were held prisoner in a Japanese internment camp for most of World War II. If you were told this story by one of the survivors, you would shake your head in amazement and marvel at her courage. You would probably think it would make a good movie: After all, it's even true.
The film begins at Raffles Hotel in Singapore in 1942, at an elegant dinner dance. An alert arrives that Japanese forces are about to take the city. Women and some children are hurried aboard a transport ship, which is attacked a few days later by Japanese aircraft. Life rafts float ashore at Sumatra, where the survivors are taken to a POW camp, there to spend the rest of the war.
The movie now has a delicate balance to find. It is no longer acceptable to portray the Japanese as the embodiment of evil; the monsters of “Bridge on the River Kwai” have now to be seen in a slightly better light, as harsh and cruel, perhaps, but not inhuman--and capable of sentiment when the prisoners form a choir and begin to perform classical choral works. (Earlier, the screenplay provides racist anti-Japanese slurs at the Singapore party, to show that the British, too, had their flaws; the film is set in 1942 but its attitudes are circa 1997.) We meet the prisoners. They include a remarkable group of women: the British musician Adrienne Pargiter (Glenn Close); the Australian missionary Margaret Drummond, nicknamed Daisy (Pauline Collins); the nurse Susan Macarthy (Cate Blanchett); the German-accented Dr. Verstak (Frances McDormand), and an American painted in broad strokes, Topsy Merritt (Julianna Marguilies).
Conditions are brutal in the tropical climate, food is scarce, living quarters are filthy, and the camp commandant (Sab Shimono) supervises cruel punishments, including one where a woman must kneel for hours in the hot sun, or fall over onto sharp spikes. Yet their music somehow redeems the conditions and elevates their spirits; the choir even soothes the Japanese to such an extent that guards sent to silence them cannot bring themselves to halt such a glorious sound (they, too, hate the war and are moved by beauty).