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"A Weak Woman's Insane Infatuation" read the headline of a 1902 Pittsburgh newspaper in the midst of a bleak northern winter riddled with scandal. The "weak woman" was Kate Soffel, wife of the Allegheny County Jail's warden, Peter Soffel, and mother to his four children. She was accused of helping two convicted murderers, Ed and Jack Biddle, escape from her husband's prison and then attempting to flee with them to Canada. Ed and Jack Biddle were brothers who received as much attention for their handsome good looks while incarcerated as they did for their violent crimes. As the warden's wife, Mrs. Soffel made it part of her duties to regularly visit all the inmates and offer words of Christian comfort to them from the Bible. It was during these visits that Mrs. Soffel took a special liking to the older Biddle, Ed. The sensation caused by Mrs. Soffel's shocking actions to help the Biddles would shake up the town for years to come.
This fascinating real-life story had almost been forgotten when screenwriter Ron Nyswaner brought the story idea to producers Edgar J. Scherick and Scott Rudin. Nyswaner, a Pennsylvania native, had grown up hearing the local folklore of Mrs. Soffel and the Biddle Boys (as Ed and Jack were known) and felt it would translate vividly onto the big screen. Once the script was completed, Oscar®-winning actress Diane Keaton was set to star in the title role and Gillian Armstrong was named director. Armstrong, who was part of what was called the "Australian New Wave" at the time, had made a splash with her first feature-length Australian film My Brilliant Career (1979). Mrs. Soffel was to be Armstrong's first American feature and first experience working with a big Hollywood budget. One of the few prominent female directors, Armstrong was often attracted to stories that featured extraordinary strong women characters. Diane Keaton, too, was drawn to the same types of roles, shining in films such as Annie Hall (1977), Shoot the Moon (1982) and The Little Drummer Girl (1984). Keaton had been eager to work with Gillian Armstrong ever since they had met a few years earlier in Los Angeles.
Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner were among the many up and coming young actors who tested opposite Diane Keaton for the crucial role of her condemned love interest, Ed Biddle. However, it was Armstrong's fellow Aussie Mel Gibson who was finally chosen. Matthew Modine, who was generating a lot of buzz for his work on Birdy (1984) at the time, was cast as the younger Biddle brother, Jack.
The stunning cinematography by Russell Boyd in Mrs. Soffel was one of the most praised aspects of the film when it was released. Shot largely in Canada and Pittsburgh under some grueling wintry weather conditions, the look is atmospheric, dark and beautiful. Boyd's photography captures the layered details of industrial grime, and the bleak, moody chill of a turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh winter is almost tangible. Director Armstrong was adamant about using shots of the real Allegheny County Jail, where the actual events of the story took place. Having been designed by noted American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, the jail was a uniquely beautiful building. Filming the jail not only contributed strong visuals to Mrs. Soffel, but also historical authenticity. When Mrs. Soffel was shooting in 1983, the jail was still being used to house prisoners, some of which were even used as background extras. The jail eventually closed in 1995, but it was preserved as a National Historic Landmark and currently houses offices of the Pennsylvania court system.
Despite the first-rate performances of Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson, Mrs. Soffel failed to make an impression on the moviegoing public who barely noticed it. Critics, however, praised it. They singled out the nuanced performances of the actors as well as the outstanding look of the film. David Edelstein of the Village Voice called Mrs. Soffel "the year's richest, most poetic love story - I'd call her (Diane Keaton's) Mrs. Soffel the best performance of the year."
Producer: David Nicksay, Scott Rudin, Edgar J. Scherick
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Film Editing: Nicholas Beauman
Art Direction: Roy Forge Smith
Music: Mark Isham
Cast: Diane Keaton (Kate Soffel), Mel Gibson (Ed Biddle), Matthew Modine (Jack Biddle), Edward Herrmann (Peter Soffel), Trini Alvarado (Irene Soffel), Jennifer Dundas (Margaret Soffel).
by Andrea Passafiume