Seventeen years after “Songcatcher,” filmmaker Maggie Greenwald offers another sensitively crafted period melodrama with “Sophie and the Rising Sun,” set in South Carolina during the weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Directing her adaptation of the 2001 romance novel by Augusta Trobaugh, Greenwald doesn’t quite escape the obviousness of the material’s lessons on racial bigotry and repressive social mores. But in a movie that would pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, however gently mannered its vintage vibe, she gives us four supremely gifted performers striking complex notes as women living in comparatively benighted times.
It’s the romance between a Southern white woman and a Japanese American man that nominally propels the film, yet its beating heart belongs to the relationships among the female characters, played by the redoubtable Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Lorraine Toussaint and Diane Ladd.
Beneath a shell of modesty, Nicholson has a quiet self-possession and resilience as Sophie Willis. Fortyish and unmarried, she’s used to the prying eyes of the busybodies in the fictional waterfront town of Salty Creek. When she isn’t crabbing — she sells her catch from her front yard, using an honor system — she dons white gloves and lace collar to catch a movie in town with her widowed best friend, Anne Morrison (Martindale).
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After a badly beaten Asian man, Grover Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), winds up in Salty Creek under mysterious circumstances, Anne agrees to open her guest cottage to the “Chinaman,” as everyone in town calls the stranger, while he recuperates. Anne’s maid promptly quits, not happy to be called on to tend to the care of a “foreigner” — a misapprehension that will prove particularly burdensome for Ohta — and thousands more Japanese Americans — as 1941 draws to a close.
Sophie and the Rising Sun
☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Lorraine Toussaint, Diane Ladd.
Director: Maggie Greenwald.
Running time: 1:45.
Rated: R, for some sexuality and nudity.