April 21, 1997 12:00 PM

Glenn Close, Pauline Collins, Frances McDormand, Julianna Margulies

Hang on to your helmets: World War II is hot again, and Hollywood is plotting a blitzkrieg of new movies about the Big One. Consider Paradise Road the advance guard, feminist division. The film is based on the true stories of a group of European and Australian women imprisoned by the Japanese in Sumatra in 1942. Most had been living lives of colonial privilege in China, but Paradise Road depicts in horrific detail the vicious beatings, meager rations and inadequate medical care these women faced and the courage and fortitude many showed in surviving.

During their four years in captivity, the prisoners form friendships that cross class and national boundaries and manage to hold their own in whatever small ways they can against their captors (including surreptitiously urinating in the bathing and drinking water of their guards). But what really pulls these women through is their formation, at first furtively and then with the tacit permission of their captors, of a choral group to sing Dvorak’s New World Symphony and other master-works. This musical effort inspires and strengthens the inmates, as did the Auschwitz orchestra depicted in the similarly themed 1980 TV movie Playing for Time. Paradise Road also recalls David Lean’s 1957 POW classic The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Although Paradise Road is effective scene by scene and there are several strong performances (especially by Close, Collins and Australian newcomer Cate Blanchett), it never achieves the dramatic heft or impact that director-screenwriter Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) clearly intended. That is because the story seems too familiar and the clichéd characters never develop beyond one-note types (wisecracking Yank, ironic Jew, lovelorn English rose, etc.). It’s not a good sign that you leave the theater whistling the tune from Kwai rather than Dvorak. (R)

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