A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries

(James Ivory, USA, 1998)


When all else fails, there is one posture that can be struck during film discussions which rarely fails to win collective assent. When the conversation gets around to the dreaded territory of middlebrow, comfortable, good looking period films – usually based on acclaimed novels – start sneering as you spit out the company name Merchant Ivory.


Pundits tend to forget not only that there are two talented people behind that label – director James Ivory and writer Ismail Merchant – but that their work encompasses several kinds of cinema before and after the middlebrow watershed of Heat and Dust (1983).


Certainly, there are some dreary, overly respectable films in their canon, and they have never quite reached the heights of say, Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993) or Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth (2000). But A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries is a beautifully crafted and deeply affecting piece.


It would be easy to damage the delicate, complex weave of this picture with a misleading or reductive synopsis. Ivory and Merchant, tackling the different genre of the family chronicle, bravely flaunt the absence of a central character or story thread. Instead, the movie is constructed like a ripple effect.


But where does this ripple start? With the father and daughter of the title, celebrated novelist Bill (Kris Kristofferson) and Channe (Leelee Sobieski)? Or with the French girl (Virginie Ledoyen) who, once upon a time, gave up a love-child for adoption, a boy who found himself transformed from Benoit to Billy once taken into this American family?


There are other key characters who float through this chronicle and make a profound impression on the family members and on us – in particular, the flamboyant, opera loving Francis Fortescue (Anthony Roth Costanzo) who befriends Channe at school. But the film is constructed not only around characters but places – and specifically on the contrast between France and America.


The domestic dwellings and social mores of both countries are superbly captured, and the interrelation between French and American personalities is rendered with a finesse worthy of Henry James.


This is a remarkably restrained film, which avoids clichés at every turn. Although Bill (based on James Jones, via his daughter Kaylie's book) is a roughly Hemingway-esque figure – a bit gruff, a hard drinker, somewhat macho – the film invests him with a profound tenderness and capacity for empathy.


Bill’s stoic disinclination to engage in flagrant or sentimental emotional displays (hence the title) is, on many levels, adopted by the film itself, which never pokes too rudely into the intimacies of its subjects. Ivory's direction – too easily mistaken for canned theatre – is always clipped, precise and revealing.


Some viewers may find this to be like many recent literary adaptations for the screen – aimless, meandering, a mere potpourri of life's varied experiences strung out across a too-large mosaic. But Ivory – whose style here reflects the influence of Andre Téchiné rather than David Lean, for a change – knows how to subtly give his chronicle an illuminating and heartbreaking form.


Not since the Taviani brothers' Kaos (1984) have I seen a film which so poignantly reflects on the continuum that mystically joins the pains of youth with the lessons of age – situating that continuum within the fraught but transcendent bonds of family love. A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries is an essential movie.

MORE Merchant Ivory: Cotton Mary, Le Divorce, The Golden Bowl, Jefferson in Paris, The Remains of the Day, Lumière and Company, Feast of July

© Adrian Martin January 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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