Paradise Road (2001)


Our rating: 3 out of 5

Rated: R

reviewed by Charity Bishop


It would be impossible to forget the heroes of the second world war, but all too often the women's plight is forgotten in the much larger scope of men fighting on foreign fronts. Paradise Road is a difficult but ultimately rewarding film about a group of women determined not to give up hope despite overwhelming odds.


With war ravaging the nations, English officers and their wives remain scattered throughout much of the civilized world. Singapore is a haven for a group of aristocratic women, predominantly British but also including Dutch, Australian, and Americans, forced to flee with the city's fall to invading Japanese forces. Leaving their husbands behind, the women are put on a small ship bound for Australia, but are bombed not far from Sumatra. Their numbers significantly diminished, they are forced to abandon ship. Overnight, three of these women drift away from the others and find themselves on unfamiliar shores. Adrienne (Glenn Close) is the natural leader, a woman of distinction and knowledge, a former connoisseur of musical arts and current wife of a high-ranking individual in the English government. Her companions are love-sick Rosemary Leighton-Jones (Jennifer Ehle), mourning separation from her military husband, and Susan (Cate Blanchett), a white cross nurse.


Forging the jungle toward civilization, the three are picked up on the road by a Japanese consul and escorted to an abominable women and children's prison camp lorded over by a tyrannical fiend (Sab Shimono). Rapidly learning that the rules of war do not apply when it comes to "Europeans, prisoners, or women," of which they are all three, soon the group begin to lose hope and pray only for survival. Other women from their gathering are there, including new faces: devout Sister Wilhelminia (Johanna Ter Steege), a local missionary named Margaret (Pauline Collins). Through a long series of torments, Margaret encourages Adrienne to teach the women how to sing. With large group gatherings and writing forbidden to all the prisoners, this presents a potential threat, but Adrienne's passion is so strong that she agrees. The result will forever impact the lives of all the women involved, and even a few of their captors.


To say that Paradise Road is not your average entertainment would be understating its purpose: not to entertain, but to educate. Much like Schindler's List, it is a film made to represent a piece of history before it is forgotten, to tell a story about courage in the face of disaster, and to remind us in a culture driven by political correctness that the enemy is not always fair. The brutalities inflicted upon these women are occasionally graphic and always cruel, overshadowed with the intent to shock audiences into realizing what primal fear is like. In a truly subtle way, the film builds on the characters of those involved, bringing out their various purposes and beliefs, and perhaps without meaning to, underlines a very Christian meaning in its subtext. The most calm, rational, and content individuals have faith in Christ. Margaret, the missionary, says that she cannot hate her captors, because the more evil they prove themselves, the more sorrow she feels for them. Sister Wilhelminia becomes a peacemaking force to be contended with, as well as offering words of wisdom whenever they are needed.


Even the Japanese "fiends" are not all that they appear to be. At the conclusion, we learn that the overseer of the camp never wanted to harm the women, but was forced into brutality because of his place in the military. Similarly, a soldier called "The Snake" by the women has a change of heart after hearing them sing. He leads Adrienne away from the others and the audience fears she will be raped, but instead he sits down and sings to her, pleading for her approval (and forgiveness for an earlier assault). The movie has many redeeming points but is not for wide audiences. Not all of the characters survive toward the end. Implications of cruelty toward the prisoners are brutal. A woman is doused with gasoline and set on fire. Another is left to bake in the hot sun, her arms and legs bound in a semi-standing position, with pointed spikes surrounding her (if she grows weak and falls, she will impale herself). Numerous times the soldiers hit the women with rifles, slap them soundly across the face (sending the females to their knees, sometimes knocking them unconscious), or inflict other forms of abuse. They shoot at one woman's toy poodle. (He is wounded, but survives.)


Language consists of numerous British and Australian profanities (bloody, bugger) and a couple of heavily accented f-words. More disappointing is the pointless nudity in two scenes. One of them involves the Japanese bath house, where the women are forced to serve their captors. This entails backside nudity on some of the officers, as well as spurs some impromptu snide remarks about physical size among the women. The other is when a fight in the women's shower room breaks out; we barely avoid full frontal nudity, but get numerous glimpses of bare breasts. Mild innuendo intrudes on occasion. Some of the women choose become prostitutes in a local officer's club in order to get better treatment. Adrianne is also attacked in the latrines with the intent of being raped, but manages to stop her attacker before he can harm her. It is an inspiring film, but also has many bleak aspects. It's nothing that I would watch more than once or twice, and it's strangely emotionless in some of its key scenes. But the gathering of talented thespians prior to their acknowledgement as serious entertainers allows us some truly mesmerizing performances.