Back in the 1940s, Hollywood was half in love with psychotherapy. Blame Freud. Any number of “women’s pictures” saw the promise of psychiatry curing all ills. In Now, Voyager Bette Davis checks into a sanatorium and checks out cured. In Hitchcock’s Spellbound – which had a famous dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali – Ingrid Bergman treats Gregory Peck‘s amnesia. Often these depictions of mental ill-health are risible by today’s more enlightened standards but they made for great tearjerkers.
The Prince of Tides may not be a tearjerker but it’s certainly a throwback. His marriage creaking, Tom (Nick Nolte) departs his idyllic family beach home for messy Manhattan when news comes that his sister has tried to kill herself – again. Sis is a celebrated poet and her psychotherapist Dr Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand) is determined to get to the bottom of her problems and befriends Tom. He ends up on her couch (in more ways than one) and coaches her son (Jason Gould, Streisand’s son in real life) in football’s finer points in Central Park. But Tom is holding back the family trauma that has so affected his sister as much as himself. His tricky mother (Kate Nelligan, seen all too briefly) may hold the key. Why is Tom so reluctant to talk about what happened to him? The climactic revelation is a shocker.
Based on the bestselling novel, there is any number of themes here. Tom’s abusive childhood in white trash South Carolina is told in flashback while we also get his bonding with the psychiatrist’s son. There’s his dead brother, the extramarital affair and Dr Lowenstein’s glamorous but unfulfilled marriage to a famous concert violinist all coagulating the plot.
Armani-swathed Streisand stars, directs and coproduces this caramelised melodrama that yearns to be taken with utter seriousness. The plot rather skates over the issues and there really is too much going on. In the process, the hospitalised sister’s story gets left by the wayside. Nolte’s raucous performance lacks subtlety. There’s also a little too much reliance on moody sunsets (over Manhattan and South Carolina’s beaches) enhanced with orchestral glissando.
Tragically there’s not much sexual chemistry between the main players. Streisand strokes Nolte; he’s a Labrador, not a lover. And there’s something questionable about using mental illness as background colour in a will-they-won’t-they romance.
That said, the whole thing is beautifully photographed (Stephen Goldblatt) and the calm centre of the storm is Streisand.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 27 Apr 2020