There’s a corner of the 1960s that has been explored only rarely in movies. I’m talking about the traditional, close-knit families that remained traditional throughout the era’s upheavals, yet were touched, in ways at once small and profound, by its open, exploratory spirit. A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, the new Merchant Ivory picture, is adapted from an autobiographical 1990 novel by Kaylie Jones (the daughter of novelist James Jones), and it traces the fortunes of just such a family.
We first encounter the Willises living in Paris in the ’60s. Bill Willis (Kris Kristofferson) is a celebrated novelist and World War II veteran, and those two facets of his life have embraced a kind of patriarchal ideal. Marcella (Barbara Hershey), his adoring wife, is a teasing bohemian who relishes her sexy-chic couture, her highballs, and the freedom to say whatever’s on her mind. Channe, the Willises’ daughter (played at different ages by Luisa Conlon and Deep Impact’s Leelee Sobieski), is a classic “difficult” overachiever–beautiful, gifted, teeming with growing pains. Billy, né Benoit, their adopted French son (Samuel Gruen and then Jesse Bradford) is a cuddly observer who finds himself in a home as “natural” and nurturing as an adopted child could wish for.
A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries is suffused with a rarefied emotional glow, and that’s something contemporary audiences may be almost desperate to respond to. Yet the movie is also tentative, rambling, and maddeningly shapeless. Kaylie Jones’ vision of her upbringing is almost too idealized, and director James Ivory has returned to the fuzzy ineptitude of movies like Quartet. He gets a showy performance out of Anthony Roth Costanzo, who plays Channe’s teen soul mate with rude theatrical zest, and a gruff, witty one from Kristofferson. The character of Bill Willis, though, is so perfect he doesn’t seem fully human. In the film’s final section, when the Willises move back to the States, Bill suffers heart trouble, the children try to read their expatriate selves into the ’70s, and the movie gains momentum but grows even more unfocused. We seem to be watching bits and pieces of a half dozen coming-of-age films. A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries is frustrating because you can see, here and there, the movie it wants to be poking out from the misfire it is.