Brooding images and crisp acting, but . . .`Mrs. Soffel' is based on grim true story, but it never quite jells

Before the first scene, ``Mrs. Soffel'' assures us that it's a true story. Otherwise this would be a hard movie to believe. Set in 1901, the action starts in a Pittsburgh prison where two brothers are waiting to be hanged. The warden's wife falls in love with one of them while comforting him with Bible readings. She helps them escape with a pair of smuggled hacksaws, then takes off with them as they flee. The finish is tragic for the men, ironic for their would-be savior.

Actually, this is hard to believe even if it really did happen. I suspect the average condemned man wouldn't interrupt an escape, for example, to sweet-talk his girlfriend before even clearing the prison wall. And it's hard to sympathize with characters who do such self-destructive things. It's as if they aren't really trying.

As for Mrs. Soffel, the screenplay hints at conditions behind her weird behavior. She has spells of poor health that may be hysterical, and her sexual relations are uncomfortable at best. Then, too, daily life isn't exactly a carnival when you live with a warden in a caged-in corner of his penitentiary.

But the movie doesn't stress the image of Mrs. Soffel as a quivery neurotic or harassed housewife. It sees her as a heroic lover, flinging aside respectability in a glorious grab at the brass ring of romance.

Although this fits an old movie tradition, it doesn't work here because the characters' choices are so obviously stupid. Even the most starry-eyed Hollywood heroine knows enough to ``let things blow over'' before slipping off to join Lefty in his hideout.

And whatever happened to leading men who whispered, ``I'll send for you!'' before launching into their dangerous journeys alone? Mrs. Soffel's boyfriend acts as if he's sneaking out of the dorm for a wild weekend, not running for his tried-and-convicted life.

The magic of cinema might have carried off this bizarre stuff against the odds if director Gillian Armstrong brought a more graceful touch to her material. While she is good at brooding images and crisp secondary performances, though, she fails to knit either the action or the emotions as tightly as such an unlikely plot demands. The finished product is well made but distant, its effect receding into the shadows just when it ought to meet us head-on.

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