'Soldier's Daughter': Sure Candidate for Year's Best Picture

'A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," the new film by director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, may surprise moviegoers who think they can predict what a Merchant Ivory picture will be like.

The duo established their reputation with movies about India, like "Shakespeare Wallah" and "Heat and Dust." But their new picture, arriving in theaters direct from the Toronto International Film Festival this week, takes place in Paris and a New Hampshire village. They're also renowned for adaptations of literary classics, from "The Bostonians" to "Howards End," but this time they've tackled a little-known book by an uncelebrated author.

Still and all, "Soldier's Daughter" doesn't mark a completely new departure, since the previous two Merchant Ivory pictures have also been fictionalized portraits of unusual people. Neither "Jefferson in Paris" nor "Surviving Picasso" ranks with their most successful work, but they've mastered it this time around.

Based on the life of novelist James Jones as seen through the eyes of his young daughter, "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" is as touching, entertaining, and thoughtful as anything Merchant Ivory has given us in its long and distinguished career. Already a strong candidate for best picture of the year, it will surely be a front-line contender for Top 10 lists and Academy Award honors.

The central characters are Bill Willis, a crusty American author based on the real-life writer of "From Here to Eternity" and "The Thin Red Line," and his daughter Channe, based on Kaylie Jones, whose book inspired the movie.

They live in Paris, where Bill is working on various projects and raising his close-knit family, which grows a bit larger when he and his wife adopt a French boy whose teenage mother isn't ready for parenthood.

The story follows the Willis clan through a series of small adventures, capped by their return to the United States, where unfamiliar surroundings - and Bill's declining health - raise fresh challenges for Channe and her brother.

This doesn't sound like a very thrilling plot, and that's exactly the point. "Soldier's Daughter" thrives less on Hollywood-style drama than on nuances of personality, details of everyday life, and emotions so commonplace that conventional movies rarely take the time to acknowledge them, much less explore them with loving care.

Ivory has always been gifted with sensitivity to subtleties of ordinary living, and he outdoes himself here, aided by a screenplay, which he penned with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the usual Merchant Ivory writing partner, who refuses to wrap experience into neatly tied packages.

One of the film's boldest maneuvers is to involve us with a fascinating character named Francis, who becomes Channe's best junior-high friend, and then drop him decisively when the family severs its French connections for a new American life. This may seem abrupt and unsettling, but it's also as lifelike as can be.

Some aspects of the Willis household will displease audiences whose standards rule out the drinking, four-letter language, and frank sexual discussions that crop up frequently among Bill and his brood; while "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" focuses on family life, it can hardly be called a family film.

This aside, the movie's deep domestic feelings are unmistakable - and encouraging, at a time when Hollywood's nods to family issues often seem driven more by trendiness than commitment.

Kris Kristofferson is excellent as Bill, blending amiability and irascibility in just the right proportions, and Leelee Sobieski shows that her run-of-the-mill debut in "Deep Impact" merely hinted at the depth of her talent. Barbara Hershey backs them up superbly as Bill's wife, and newcomer Anthony Roth Costanzo almost steals the movie as Channe's opera-loving friend.

Jean-Marc Fabre did the sensuous cinematography, and Merchant Ivory regular Richard Robbins composed the rhythmic, haunting score. All deserve the highest praise.

* Rated R; contains foul language, a childhood sexual encounter, candid discussion of sex, illness, and frequent drinking. David Sterritt's e-mail address is: sterrittd@csps.com

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