Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Recasting 1987 (supporting): "Empire of the Sun"

We continue this supporting recasting project with a selection that most Streepers, upon first reading, will probably think "huh?" It's been fun to go outside of the box a bit with these supporting roles. There's a wider spectrum from which to choose; borderline lead (see Witness) to borderline cameo (Empire of the Sun and--spoiler--my likely upcoming choice for 2011). I first watched Empire of the Sun a couple of years ago when making preliminary selections for which films I might include in this follow-up recasting project. So often I find myself choosing to insert Meryl into roles that not only seem exciting from the character standpoint, but from the backdrop or region of the world in which the movie takes place. Steven's Spielberg's 1987 drama caught my eye for its setting in the less-often portrayed Pacific Theatre of World War II. 

The film is a coming-of-age story that follows the young Jamie Graham (Christian Bale), a British kid living with his rich parents in Shanghai when Japan begins to occupy parts of China in the early 1940s. Jamie gets separated from his parents, and after being taken prisoner, survives by operating a successful trading network in an internment camp. It is here where he develops close relationships with many of the prisoners. He idolizes the American POW camp, especially Basie, an expatriate hustler (John Malkovic), and is sort of reluctantly taken into the "home" of Mr. and Mrs Victor. It's Mrs. Victor whom I've chosen as the role to be recast in this entry. 

Portrayed by Miranda Richardson, the part of shell-shocked Mrs. Victor is one that I've come to learn was likely trimmed down significantly in the editing process. It's a shame too, because while it was never going to be a huge role, there seems to be large enough thread of her character throughout the interment camp scenes (the bulk of the film), that one gets a sense that she was intended to be showcased more in the original script. A British socialite, Mrs. Victor is a sharp contrast to the energy and opportunistic drive that motivates Jamie. She's annoyed by Jamie's naivete and pluck, and half the time looks like she's ready and willing to simply pass on.

We don't fully know whether she's just sad, scared, pissed, or a combination of all three. But the mother-son dynamic is strong enough that she welcomes Jamie back to their bunk after he learns Basie escapes the camp. In some ways, with her quiet and suppressed demeanor in the background (there are tidbits where you can totally get the sense that she's a snooty rich Brit), she's like a ghost figure in the film, her presence weaving through Jamie's experiences and framing them a bit for us in regard to his growing up. 

After the camp is liberated, Jamie makes his way with Mrs. Victor and the rest of the prisoners to a sports stadium filled with confiscated expensive furniture. It's here where Jamie probably completes his "coming of age." Mrs. Victor convinces him to stay put. And as Jamie suggests they "play dead" to not be noticed, he finds that Mrs. Victor isn't pretending in the morning. It's a pretty cool (if sad) scene actually, where the bright light from the Hiroshima bomb is interpreted by Jamie as Mrs. Victor's soul leaving her body. 

Again, it's a shame if it's true that Mrs. Victor was to have a large part in the film. It would've made us care a little more about her death, I think, which only helps the impact of the movie. I realize that this role might seem like there'd be too little for Meryl to do. But I can imagine her in the mid to late 80s making herself available if her agent had given her the script--since it would be working with Steven Spielberg--which up to that point she hadn't. She would've been fascinating to watch in an understated role like this. I would've preferred if there'd been something in The Last Emperor, a superior film released in the same year that also takes place mostly in China, but without it being so much through the scope of a white person. I also wish I would've seen Empire closer to the time that it came out. It would've been extremely easy for me to imagine myself in Jamie's place, having been only a few years younger than he was depicted on the screen. What a whirlwind and frightening journey for someone so young. 

Empire of the Sun wasn't quite the box-office hit like so many of Spielberg's movies had been earlier in that decade. But it received a ton of tech recognition at the Academy Awards and generally did well with critics. The film is beautifully shot. Very much an epic landscape and story. I also happen to think Bale's performance is stunning for someone so young. In general, the film is finely acted, with Miranda Richard's (downsized undersized) performance no exception. 


  1. Great choice, one I would have not anticipated. I didn't realise this was directed by Spielberg. You are giving me a lot of movies to watch!

    My choice will be the Vanessa Redgrave role in "Prick Up Your Ears", the true story of Joe Orton and his lover/killer. I remember watching this over a decade ago and being riveted by the acting and the fact these things actually happened!

    Although Meryl may have been too young for the role I have no doubt they could have made it work.

    1. Ooo I've never seen that! Taking a quick peek, it looks like she would've been quite young for the part like you said, but maybe it would've worked!