FILMS… Mrs Soffel (1984)

#1980s

 

When they met, he was accused of murder…

 

Based on a true story, while two brothers await their hanging for murder, one asks the prison warden’s wife to help them escape.

 

Mrs Soffel Official Trailer #1 – Matthew Modine Movie (1984) HD, Movieclips Classic Trailers

 

The 1901 true story of Kate Soffel, the Allegheny County prison warden’s wife was a Hollywood film waiting to happen. Since 1901 the story of her association with two of the prison inmates, the notorious criminals, the Biddle brothers have been documented, scrutinised and debated by journalists, historians, screenwriters, playwrights and romantics.

The last of these groups included yours truly, who as a teenager on her first viewing of this film, sobbed throughout and found it a tragic romance. The renowned critic, Gene Siskel claimed this a “woman’s film” and his television screen partner, Roger Ebert described it as an “anaemic Bonnie and Clyde”. Now you can decide for yourself.

Mrs Soffel (1984) is set in industrial Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1901. The Soffel family, are headed by the strict, prison warden, middle-aged, Peter Soffel (Edward Herrmann).  They live in their own living quarters in the Allegheny County jail. Peter and his similarly aged wife of seventeen years, Kate (Diane Keaton) have four children aged sixteen and younger.

Late one night, Kate wakes and gives out an anguished scream. She wakes up her four children and husband. She tells her husband that she has had a dream where she was lost in a snowstorm and was unable to breathe. Kate adds that someone pulled her to a clear place away from the snowstorm. She believes that this dream means God isn’t going to let her die. Peter is dismissive of her thoughts and gives her a sedative to help her sleep.

It seems Kate has been unwell and has remained in her bed for several months with a condition that even her doctor can’t diagnose. During this time, her eldest daughter 16-year-old, Irene has cared for her father and her three younger more spirited siblings Margaret, Eddie and Clarence. Kate’s relationship with her husband appears to be cold and passionless and the two have slept in separate bedrooms since she got unwell.

The morning after this dream, Kate makes a sudden recovery. She gets up from her bed and she now appears bright, happy and well and warm with her children. She chooses to continue to sleep in a different bedroom from her husband. The devoutly religious Kate then returns to her previous duties as wife of the warden by giving blankets, Bibles and Bible readings to this secure prison’s male and female inmates.

Meanwhile outside the prison walls, newspapers report the facts about the Biddle brothers’ trial. The twenty-somethings Ed (Mel Gibson) and Jack Biddle (Matthew Modine) were arrested with their accomplice Walter after the fatal shooting of a grocer. These three men were involved in a number of robberies. Many people campaign for the Biddles’ release outside the prison with placards proclaiming theïr innocence.

It seems that these two good-looking and charming men have captured the hearts of many female admirers. Many women bring presents for the guards to give to brothers, others pray for the pair’s release, and a newspaper heading reports that some women “swooned” at the handsome Ed during their trial. The Biddle brothers are both brought to the Allegheny County jail after their trial, to await their death and put in neighbouring cells.

During cell inspections, a guard goads Jack who tries to attack him, just as Kate comes to visit the brothers. The guard then mocks Ed about the brothers’ imminent death. Ed immediately punches the guard viciously in the stomach. Ed throws himself onto Kate forcing her to the ground. He is then wrestled by the guards into his cell.

Once he’s locked up, Kate gives him a handkerchief to wipe the blood from his face. It seems that he’s touched by this gesture. After she asks about a scar on his face, he tells her that after he was arrested he tried to kill himself. She tells him she doesn’t believe in capital punishment and hanging and then both the brothers decline her offer of a Bible.

In her subsequent visit to the Biddle boys, Ed quotes the Bible mockingly to her. He then challenges Kate about the Bible and then asks that she reads to him her favourite part from the Bible. The pair have discussions about heaven, hope, the Bible and forgiveness.

He then asks about her thoughts on his innocence. He tells Kate that he and his brother are innocent of the murder. But he says is guilty of wanting to kill the man whose testimony convicted them. He claims the brothers were framed by their accomplice, Walter who carried out the crime. Walter has not been given a death sentence.

When the brothers are alone, Ed tells Jack, that he won’t let him be hanged. He blames himself for his brother’s arrest. He then asks Kate to visit him and in time he asks her to pray for their release. Ed has regular meetings with Kate, and he writes a letter of appeal against their sentence.

Their appeal is denied and the brothers remain sentenced to hang. Ed gives Kate a photograph of himself and it has a poem that he has written on the flipside. This poem warmly thanks her for her support, and they share some smiles as he reads it to her. She flirts with him a little after asking if he wrote just it for her, and then they smile. This poem is below;

Just a little violet
From across the way
Came to cheer a prisoner
In his cell one day

Just a little flower
Sent by loving hand
Has a kindly meaning
That true hearts understand

Just a little violet
Picked with tender care
God has smiled upon it
And the sender fair

So now that little token
Wrapped tight in paper neat
Rests quietly within a grave
O’er which a heart does beat

Ed then begins to panic about his and his brothers’ future fate. He attacks Kate verbally and then he pulls her close to the bars of his cell. She holds his face, out of concern and then the two then kiss passionately. Kate breaks away from him and rushes home. She is immediately repentant about this kiss, and she prays fervently to God asking for forgiveness. Her prayer suggests appears that she is at unease with her then “sinful” romantic feelings that she feels about Ed.

Kate signs her name in a letter to ask the prison governor for a review of the Biddles’ imprisonment due to a miscarriage of justice. Peter dismisses her beliefs about the Biddles innocence and the use of capital punishment. He admonishes her saying she has embarrassed him in his present job role.  Then he confronts her and questions her sanity and suggests she visit family.

After she avoids the Biddles for nearly a week, Ed starts a fire in his cell. Kate spots this fire from her quarters and cries for help from the guards. A guard saves his life pulling him to safety. Ed tells Kate that she should have let him die. She says she wants him to live. Ed then tells his brother that Kate will help them and that God will find a way to save them. Ed says he knows this as she believes in God and one of them appears to laugh.

After her outburst and the fire, her husband has her give readings to the women prisoners only. But a prisoner Lenny surreptitiously gives her a Bible that contains a letter from Ed. In this letter, Ed writes to her tenderly and hints at ways she can help them escape, by writing about a successful escape plan.

This letter to her appears to be a cry for help from an innocent man and the letter is written in a way that would win this woman over believing he had feelings for her and God. Kate acts on his letter and takes saw blades to him and Jack. These are hidden in her Bible and in her boots. As Ed retrieves the blades from her boots, she giggles. The men begin to saw the bars during the night, and use candle wax to secure the bars until they are ready to escape.

However, when he asks for guns she feels that she is being “played” by Ed, Despite this, she advises the Biddles of a night when there are only two guards on duty. That same night she sends her children away for the night. That night, the brothers escape from the cells and overpower the guards taking their uniforms. Ed and Jack then visit the residents’ quarters and he convinces Kate to join them on the run… and the rest can be seen by checking out this movie (or reading those history books).

The hauntingly beautiful but wistful opening piano music is heard after foreboding clanks and drum beats. These seem to suggest the merging of these protagonists’ lives. I believe that the accompanying dark, gloomy and colourless silhouettes of an industrial Pittsburgh in the opening credits reflect the lives and impending fates of the protagonists at the start of the film.

Kate Soffel and the Biddle brothers have doomed lives in Pittsburgh. Kate is an outspoken wife and caring mother, but her life is one of constant restrictions and expectations in her role as a prison warden’s wife. The Biddles are awaiting their death and have no further chances for appealing against this.

Gillian Armstrong, the director filmed many interior and exterior shots of the Allegheny County jail. This was the same jail where this true story occurred and the prison added much to the ambience and authenticity of the story. The shadows of the bars on the Biddles and Kate’s faces in the opening scenes, suggesting they aren’t the people they once were and that each of them are restricted and are condemned in their own ways. The darkness within the Soffel home is echoed in Kate’s then life. The restrictions felt by Kate and the looming imprisonment of the men were also felt in the darkness of their scenes before their escape.

I believe Mrs Soffel was bedridden as she was depressed with her life and unhappy marriage. She slept in a separate room from her husband. I believed this was possibly as she wished to avoid confronting her anger with her situation and being with her husband. In both these situations, she has to conform not challenge.

Kate is hemmed in by her life, expectations and duties as a Wardens wife, and you understand this from her scenes with her husband. Her husband doesn’t appear to listen to her and is concerned about his job and he suggests her mental health is playing up when she challenges him. He puts Ed into an isolation cell for a short time in the prison, this suggests his possible jealousy of this prisoner getting the attention of his wife.

In contrast to these cold scenes, there were warmer family scenes showing Kate with her young children. These scenes, especially with Margaret, all suggested she was a caring mother. Interestingly, Kate has more colourful scenes with her children and both she and the Biddles brighter scenes after they escape their prison lives.

In the scene where she talks about the Biddles arrest with her daughter, Margaret, this tells us the two conflicting stories as believed at the time. Margaret believes the Biddles accomplice set them up to take the blame, and secondly the reality of the jury finding them guilty. There was also a nice touch as Margaret’s description of the events took a natural childish turn as she talked about the gory details of the fatal robbery.

Kate also has warm scenes with her eldest daughter, Irene. It appears she appears she’s concerned for 16 year old, Irene marrying at a too young age to a man she doesn’t love. This may or may not have reflected Kate’s own experience. Irene then snaps at her mother, saying she also married young, but it’s clear Kate hopes that her daughter has a happier life and marriage than herself.

Diane Keaton gives a stirring and compelling performance, you feel her character’s pain in her unhappy marriage in scenes with her on-screen husband. Her character seems to throw herself into her old life with her Bible readings. However, her true liberation and freedom to be herself seems to come after she believes the innocence of the Biddles and her apparent liberation from her life kissing Ed. She takes risks, giggles and is a bit flirty as she helps them escape.

Later in the film, Kate’s uptight bun is taken down and her hair left loose. This suggests she now is free of those expectations as a prisoner’s wife. She also shares a bed and a much more intimate closeness with Ed, which was not observed in her scenes with her husband. Ed is seen to listen to her and cares for her, in contrast to her husband who dismisses her thoughts and put her in a separate room, and bed with a sedative.

Ed is played ambiguously by Mel Gibson. You are unclear as to Ed’s motives surrounding Mrs Soffel, and if he loves her or is using her. In the latter, it appears that he is manipulating her using God as a tool. You debate if he is believing Kate’s Bible readings or he is seeing using God as a means by which he can get Kate’s sympathy and help. In the former, his true feelings for Kate are shown as he comes to get her to join them after they escape the jail. His possible love is reinforced in those later scenes.

In later scenes, telling of the events after they escape, the Biddle brothers and Kate journey towards the Canadian border. This with the Sheriff and his men chasing after them. This compelling remaining plot takes us to some beautifully filmed snowy landscapes. This is seen in transfixing and hypnotic cinematography. It is through the warm colour of the fire in Ed’s cell and these more open landscapes seen on their escape from their lives, that Kate and the Biddles feel alive once more.

Things seem to go full circle. In the opening scene, Kate believes in the positive message she understands in her dream. She feels her dream is reassuring her that she will feel “alive” and happier again. This is after she is helped by someone to save her from her “death” as she is freed from her old life. These remaining scenes feel like an echo of her dream, and show her dream as a prophetic one, resulting from this crime straight from the heart.

Weeper Rating 😦😦 😦😦😦 😦😦 😦😦😦/10

Handsqueeze Rating  🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂  /10

Hulk Rating: ‎ 0 /10

 


The Bustles and Bonnets Costume Blogathon No 35

This post was added to Pale Writer and Silver Screen Classics The Bustles and Bonnets Costume Blogathon. Other reviews with this cast include Jennifer Dundas in Catholic Boys. Diane Keaton stars in Somethings Gotta Give, Baby Boom and Shoot the Moon. Matthew Modine stars in Stranger Things. Edward Herrmann stars in Overboard and Annie. Mel Gibson stars in Conspiracy Theory and The Simpsons. Maury Chaykin in The Kidnapping of the President.


 

9 thoughts on “FILMS… Mrs Soffel (1984)

  1. About two years ago, I watched this film for the first time in several years and I cried so much. I always wish that somehow Kate and Ed can get away together, but sadly, this film shows the realities of life for women at that time and their lack of liberty and independent desire. So well written, Gill. I really enjoyed your insights into Kate and Ed’s character motivations. Thanks for participating in our Blogathon 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the points you raised here, especially the character analysis. Diane Keaton sounds like a fab choice for this role, and it looks like she juggles a lot of emotion in this role. I’m looking forward to seeing this, but I’ll have the tissue at the ready.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent review of this unappreciated movie. As you noted, director Armstrong did a great job capturing a specific time and place. And I agree with you that Keaton was superb. It’s too bad that the movie wasn’t a hit.

    Liked by 1 person

Love your thoughts... but only if they are spoiler free!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.