Talk about laying it on thick. There is a factual basis to this World War II drama about women prisoners, captured by the Japanese, who form a vocal orchestra to reach the heavens while they grovel in the mud. What should have been an affecting film becomes a rank blend of sentiment and sadism in the hands of Bruce Beresford, the Australian writer and director. Beresford, who can blow hot (Driving Miss Daisy) or cold (Last Dance), strikes a sour note throughout.
Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Pauline Collins, Julianna Margulies and Jennifer Ehle are just a few of the actress luminaries gathered to play the European, Australian and American women who fled Singapore after its occupation only to find their ship bombed and their rights ignored as the Japanese herd them into camps. Those women who choose to sleep with Japanese officers are billeted in style; those who don’t must suffer gross indignities.
It’s Close’s and Collins’ characters who come up with the idea for a vocal orchestra. No pop stuff, either — real classical pieces. The Japanese resist at first, cracking their gun butts into female jaws and midriffs, and devising tortures that involve beating, burning, impaling and beheading. Did such tortures exist? Yes. Did Beresford have to film them with such lip-smacking attention to brutal, race-baiting detail? I don’t think so. Everything in this film feels overdone, from Close’s noble suffering to McDormand’s accent and bearing as a German doctor. Beresford locks the brilliant Best Actress Oscar winner (for Fargo) in a caricature out of Hogan’s Heroes. Only Ehle, the lovely star of TV’s Pride and Prejudice, finds the grace for restraint. The singing of the choir is gorgeous, but even here Beresford gooses our reactions, cutting to shots of hardened guards weeping. Didn’t this cornball propaganda go out with wartime films like So Proudly We Hail!? It should have.