Meryl Streep, a Botticelli with a boggled nose, transcends her own beauty in "Sophie's Choice," the film from the best- selling novel. The camera worships her and so should we, for this is her tour de force.
In past work -- "French Lieutenant's Woman," for one -- she has relied on rapport with the lens, her clear eyes, clear skin. Here, the part drives her. Streep studied both Polish and German for the film. And she's totally convincing in all her languages. Her hair is shorn, her face ravaged after a diet of wine, fruit juice and a little salad she endured for a flashback as an Auschwitz prisoner.
But the film begins in 1947 in Brooklyn. She's safe, speaking broken English, a carnal madonna in Prospect Park, where she lives with her lover Nathan (Kevin Kline). It's a fatal attraction, observes Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young Southern writer who lives downstairs in Yetta Zimmerman's lox- colored rooming house. Stingo's ceiling shakes and he is drawn to the lovers upstairs, to what he doesn't have. For him, they're quicksand; he's sucked into a mercurial friendship. There's no equilibrium. Nathan, dynamic, controlling and out of control, is their guru.
The superlative actors -- it would take a steamshovel to heap on enough good words -- are directed by Alan J. Pakula, who's already given us such classics as "Klute," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "All the President's Men." Pakula, who also wrote the script, was most concerned with essence, so he jettisoned some of the book -- Stingo's father, Stingo's editing job at McGraw-Hill, his mastubatory excesses -- for time's sake.
He gives us a film about people who are in some ways too special for this world -- "the butchered, marytred, murdered children of earth." Sophie is cowardice and guilt and obsessive love. It keeps her from being alone. Nathan, a delicious masochist and madman, is her only loyalty in life, her only bravery; in all else she has copped out.
Pakula takes no advantage of the tear- jerking possibilities in this work, not that you won't cry. This is a film of human indignity and dignity. Of small lies and that varnish, truth. The smoke from the crematorium is enough; the fat German children at play is enough; a child clutching at her bear and toy flute in her mother's arms at the death camps is more. A proud commandant's wife announcing that she baked Himmler's favorite cake is the tiny villany that becomes a million deaths.
There is some humor, but it's orchestrated by a paranoid: The brilliant Nathan, tempestuous, temper-driven, was there the night they invented champagne and the theme party. We could all use a Nathan to scare us and push us into livening up our lives. The film belongs to Streep and Pakula and, to a lesser degree, Kline, star of the "Pirates of Penzance." But MacNicol, whose only other film role was in "Dragonslayer," deserves credit for playing down. Being the narrator was like being a Greek chorus, he says. But his doesn't resound; it harmonizes pianissimo, so that we strain to hear.
The film is gripping, so much so that single scenes, even flashbacks fit together like finely grained wood. Each scene advances Sophie's story. There are only a few lost moments. SOPHIE'S CHOICE: Opens December 10 at the KB Cinema, 5100 Wisconsin Avenue NW.