Mrs. Soffel (1984)

Synopsis:

In 1901, at a Pennsylvania prison, the warden’s wife (Diane Keaton, Annie Hall) falls in love with a man on death row (Mel Gibson, Mad Max). As the affair intensifies, the respected wife and mother decides to help her lover escape from jail.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Don’t you let them take me alive… Promise me.”

All my life I have heard people use the phrase “reality is stranger than fiction,” and frankly, I had never quite accepted that concept – at least not until I watched this period piece for the first time. Mrs. Soffel could have easily been labeled as a farfetched movie by many viewers, if not for the fact that the plot is based on a true story.

After viewing the film, I was still quite incredulous and decided to do some research about the real characters portrayed in the movie, and to my huge surprise, some of the most unbelievable scenes in the movie are accurate recreations of the events that transpired during a gloomy winter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, around 1901.

For that reason alone, Mrs. Soffel is worthy of a look. The fact that the film is beautifully crafted is a bonus. Directed by Aussie filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career and Starstruck) from a script by Ron Nyswaner (Swing Shift), Mrs. Soffel is a brooding romantic drama that deserves much more attention than it has received so far.

Armstrong and her team manage to create moving and sympathetic portraits of the real people who were involved in this fascinating true incident. Also notable is the feminist angle that the Aussie filmmaker has been able to give the story, adding emotional resonance to the plight of the title character, a passionate and intelligent woman trapped in an era when women were voiceless and powerless.

Add the compelling performances of Diane Keaton, Mel Gibson (in one of his first Hollywood films) and Matthew Modine (Vision Quest) to the equation, and what you get is a little gem. The cast also includes Edward Herrmann (The Lost Boys), Trini Alvarado (The Frighteners), Terry O’Quinn (The Stepfather) and Jennifer Dundas (The Hotel New Hampshire). The splendid camera work was done by Russell Boyd (Picnic at Hanging Rock). Mark Isham (Quizz Show) wrote the lovely music score.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Despite the presence of some well-known actors, Mrs. Soffel was mostly ignored by audiences when it first debuted in movie theaters more than thirty years ago. All drama lovers and fans of Mel Gibson, Diane Keaton and/or Gillian Armstrong should give this movie a chance. Recommended. Color, 112 minutes, Rated PG-13.

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