A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries

Merchant & Ivory made many films in their decades together as both co-workers and life partners, some of them absolute masterpieces (Remains of the Day) and others… not so much, though they’re all, at least, intelligent and tastefully done. Watching a lesser-known M&I film, then, is a bit of a risk- you know it will be a long, drawn out period drama about something, but whether or not that something is riveting and poignant or just plain forgettable, well, that’s the risk you’re taking with their work.

Surprisingly and thankfully, the pretty much forgotten A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries is really, really great. It’s surprising because it was made at a time when they seemed past their prime- the late 90’s- and it came and went without much fanfare. One could easily go through life never stumbling upon this movie, and that would be a shame. The film is based on the story of real-life author James Jones’ life as written by his daughter, but then fictionalized into period drama. What it ends up being is a snapshot of a family that we get to know over the course of a decade as we follow the kids from childhood to adolescence, from Paris to New England, from a sort of beginning to a sort of end.

The film’s unique storytelling structure meanders all over the place, pulling side characters in and out of the main plot as needed- a device which gives this movie a very unique and refreshing vibe. It’s only once the film ends that you can really determine what it was about- before that, you’re never quite sure where we’re headed, who it’s really about, or what you’re supposed to focus on as a viewer. That ambiguity may disturb some, but it works beautifully here. Housekeeper Candida could be the center of a whole ‘nother movie, but instead we are treated to snippets of her sad, lonely, and unfulfilled life. When the family eventually has to leave her, we do as well, with an unresolved storyline so tantalizingly familiar to anyone who has lived long enough on Earth.

The same could be said for others who cross the Willis family’s path- daughter Channe’s flamboyant BFF Francis, or son Billy’s biological mother… more tales that will never be fully told. What could have been a sloppy mess or a meandering story is saved by the sharply rendered characters all throughout the script, penned by Ivory and the third leg of the Merchant & Ivory Trinity, screenplay master Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. What’s interesting to note are the overtones that clearly overlap between this film and James Ivory’s award-winning screenplay for the more famous Call Me By Your Name, specifically in the relationship between parents and children. It’s so rare to see such a refreshingly open and honest manner portrayed in Hollywood- we almost always get teen angst and clueless parents clashing- that one can’t help but notice the similarities pop out in both these films.

Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey play those parents brilliantly, elevating the dialogue into moving soliloquies, ensuring that Soldier’s Daughter is never not compelling. Unlike some of the melodramatic plot twists found in Merchant & Ivory’s E.M. Forster adaptations (Howard’s End, A Room With a View) Soldier’s Daughter is refreshingly sweet and heart-on-sleeve direct: just a real family with real love for each other, unique in their approach, but ultimately figuring out how to get through life, like everyone else.

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