Sophie and the Rising Sun
Director Maggie Greenwald has adapted Augusta Trobaugh’s 2001 historical romance into a decorous feminist drama whose characters share many qualities with the willful nonconformists of her other period films, The Ballad of Little Jo and Songcatcher. But in the sleepy fishing village of Salty Creek, South Carolina, during the fall of 1941, the idea of rebellion initially seems as far away as the war. The townsfolk prize propriety, believe in helping their neighbors and extend hospitality to a wounded stranger.
Greenwald and cinematographer Wolfgang Held linger on the idyllic beauty of the salt marsh and trees draped with Spanish moss, using the vivid cerulean of native blue crabs to link her characters. That’s the color of the scarf worn by Sophie Willis (Julianne Nicholson) as she empties her crab traps, the bus that drops off a severely beaten Grover Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), and the lush hydrangeas in the elaborate backyard garden of Anne Morrison (Margo Martindale). Anne’s household is changed by Ohta’s presence and the arrival of new maid Salome Whitmore (Lorraine Toussaint): Both are quiet but forceful, cloaking their intelligence in servitude and subtly challenging the in-grained biases of this bighearted widow.
Each also influences faded spinster Sophie, who reclaims the fearlessness of her youth. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor cracks the veneer of gentility, and racist anger aimed at Ohta reveals the violent insecurity of the keepers of American normalcy. Greenwald’s women abandon their stifling decorum to aid him, and free themselves in the process.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on February 3, 2017 by Monterey Media
First published in The Village Voice, 2017.