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The unsung sacrifice of Aussies in war is a recurring theme of the new Australian cinema. Bruce Beresford’s first international success came with 1980’s Breaker Morant, which protested the treatment of Australian soldiers in the Boer War; Peter Weir provided a World War I variation on the theme with Gallipoli. Now, after a series of Hollywood banalities, Beresford returns to the Southern Hemisphere and war’s innocent Anglo-Australian victims with Paradise Road. It’s no triumph, but it is Beresford’s best film in years.

Based on “true incidents,” the movie follows a group of British and Australian women fleeing 1942 Singapore, which the Japanese have just invaded. The women board a ship that’s sunk by enemy planes, and then swim to Sumatra, where they’re soon interned in a prison camp that they share with some Dutch (and a few token Asian) women. Starved and brutalized by an assortment of rough and smooth Japanese soldiers, society wife Adrienne Pargiter (Glenn Close) and serene missionary Margaret Drummond (Pauline Collins) attempt to transcend their circumstances by forming an “orchestra” that hums work by Dvoÿrák, Ravel, and Chopin.

That sounds sticky, and Paradise Road does have moments that are altogether too inspirational for their own good. Still, this is hardly the most sentimental film ever made by the director of Driving Miss Daisy and Crimes of the Heart. Its depiction of torture and execution is unflinching, and the women spend a lot more time hauling water and crushed stone than they do humming. Nor does the film pretend that music is more powerful than starvation and malaria: Although the only Asian woman with a significant part is the first to die, it’s not just the supporting cast that eventually succumbs.

Written from unpublished memoirs and interviews with 25 survivors, Beresford’s script is frequently compelling. As a director, however, he undermines his own work by allowing some cartoonish performances, notably Frances McDormand’s as Verstak, a German-Jewish refugee who claims to be a doctor. The characterization of Verstak as a sour cynic with a (carefully hidden) compassionate heart is crudely drawn, but it might not have been so distracting if McDormand hadn’t played it with a knowing twinkle and a Col. Klink accent.

Like Breaker Morant, this has the structure of a one-location play (although the Japanese later pack the prisoners off to another camp deeper in the interior). Most of the characters are issued only one or two character traits: Adrienne is steely and determined, and capable of discarding her long-treasured snobbery when forced into the company of women from diverse backgrounds. Margaret is calm and forgiving, but not weak. Susan (Cate Blanchett) is a sturdy-spirited Australian nurse, Topsy (Julianna Margulies) is a feisty American, Rosemary (Jennifer Ehle) is a British romantic who can live only as long as she believes her husband is still alive, and Sister Wilhelmina (Immortal Beloved’s Joanna ter Steege) is a Dutch nun who’s no saint.

Tough going in places, Paradise Road is recommended to those who can’t imagine what it was like to be held in a Japanese prison camp. Ironically, the film has been widely dismissed for its attempts to be uplifting. Yet without such scenes a movie this harsh would never get made. There’s plenty of cheap consolation available in mainstream movies, but not much stark historical dread.

Faced with Bernard Rose’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the obvious joke is that all good movies are the same, but a bad movie is bad after its own fashion. Alas, that’s just not the case. Anna Karenina is bad in exactly the same fashion as Rose’s Immortal Beloved, his sumptuous and silly Beethoven biopic—and, for that matter, most other richly appointed contemporary costume dramas.

Given the breadth of Tolstoy’s novel—850 pages in the Penguin paperback—Rose might sagely have chosen only a piece of the story, which recounts the ultimately catastrophic adultery of Anna (Sophie Marceau) and Count Vronsky (Sean Bean). The writer/director could also have jettisoned the contrasting tale of Constantin Levin (Alfred Molina), a jaded aristocrat who finds a new enthusiasm for life when he embraces the everyday. Instead, Rose takes it all on, advancing the story in scenes so short that they might as well be panels from a Classics Illustrated comic. (Anna and Vronsky’s idyll in Italy lasts about a minute.) The result is a film that can be recommended to high-schoolers who have a book report due; they’ll find out what happens, although usually not why.

The film’s psychological opacity is primarily the fault of Rose’s script, but the performances don’t help much. This is a typical English-language international co-production, populated by solid, unexciting Brits and one French beauty with a heavy, incongruous accent. (Adding to the bewilderment, Rose has workers and servants speak subtitled Russian, while the aristocrats converse in English, apparently a surrogate for the French widely spoken by the ruling class in the period.) The only performance with much kick is Fiona Shaw’s brief turn as the pious widow who moves in on Alexi Karenin (James Fox) after his young wife runs off with Vronsky.

Rose doesn’t pretend very hard that any of these people are actually residents of 19th-century St. Petersburg, or that the events take place in a universe where the exotic Marceau might be captivated by the stolid Bean. While viewers may still be pondering exactly where the chemistry between the two lovers is, Rose has galloped on to the next scene. The tragedy, when it arrives, is equally rushed and rote.

Maybe Anna and Vronsky are just intoxicated by the costumes and the sets. Seconding The Russia House, Anna Karenina’s wide-screen views of grand plazas, ornate theaters, dramatic cathedrals, and palatial ballrooms argue that St. Petersburg is the world’s most photogenic city. As might be expected, the film is aurally opulent as well, swathed in Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev.

Rose is obviously more passionate about music than he is about passion. He also seems more interested in Tolstoy’s philosophy, which is embodied in the character of Levin, than in the novelist’s narrative. A man who prefers the country to the city, Levin further withdraws from society after his marriage proposal is rebuffed by Kitty (Mia Kirshner), who loves Vronsky. When he begins working in the fields with his serfs, however, he finds a new peace; eventually, he gets everything he wants, including Kitty.

In outline, that seems pretty crude. Given his apparent interest, however, perhaps the director should have concentrated on the tale of Levin’s redemption. He could have made a film titled Constantin Levin, in which Anna Karenina makes only one brief appearance. That would not be so bold a change of emphasis as the one undertaken by Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but it might have helped Rose sidestep the painfully obvious and the merely picturesque. And, judging from his two most recent films, he does need some assistance with that.CP