As Nick Nolte’s hazy, forlorn narration fades in over a dreamlike aerial view of the South Carolina lowlands, you aren’t quite sure exactly what The Prince Of Tides has in store for its audience, which I think was intentional on director Barbra Streisand’s part. This is a film of immense power, tough interpersonal relationships, courage, hope, love, hardships and trauma buried like a secret so deep it takes many story beats to unpack it, like a flower tossing petals to the wind until bit by bit we see the core of truth within.
Nolte is Tom Wingo, a southern family man who endured a tumultuous and horrific childhood, weathering out hardships in stronger fashion than his two siblings, one of whom is dead and the other in psychiatric care in New York City after repeated suicide attempts. Tom leaves his wife (Blythe Danner) and daughters for awhile to look after her and to speak with her doctor, Susan (Streisand), who is trying desperately to understand and help them. It’s then that his real journey inward begins, and he learns to unearth, process and begin to heal from an unspeakably heinous tragedy from his childhood. He also finds love with her, despite them both having spouses, children and being two people who are worlds apart in every aspect of their lives despite their deep attraction and bond to one another.
The film is structured in such a way that harbours secrets deep and dark, events that are key in Tom’s understanding of himself and willingness to move forward, but they only come to light when he’s ready to both tell her and remind himself what he’s tried so hard to forget. He’s a headstrong man, loving father and rowdy southern football coach who outwardly appears to have it all figured out and has an alpha, assured response to anything flung his way… except Susan’s desire to know his pain, and help him through it. Nolte is a blustery, stormy performer who can scarcely sit still for two minutes or light a smoke without tossing it away after one drag to belt out some retort at another character, and indeed this is the impression we get of Tom off the bat. But there’s an introspective stillness that creeps into his performance here, slowly turning him from a closed off, emotionally unavailable man into a deeply hurt one who has to slow down a bit in order to heal. There’s a key scene in his performance where Susan frankly and bluntly (perhaps as a last resort tactic) coaxes the truth out of him; he does the nervous leg bob, stares out the window, gruffs, grunts and does anything to avoid letting himself remember it, feel it, but when he does… well, let’s just say that it’s the most honest work I’ve ever seen from him and he owns it with absolute dignity, truth and clarity. It isn’t easy getting such can honest performance out of someone as a director, but Streisand shows a sure hand and clear eye as a creative force and ditches the bubbly, frazzled aesthetic in her acting work for something beautifully direct and down to earth. The film shows how time can both heal wounds and cover them up without the proper reconciliation and processing, leading to the kind of intense, life changing surge of midlife dramatic events we see here. Tom bookends the film with meditative, personal rumination imparted to us in voiceover as the deep orange sun saturates the Carolinas and keeps us afloat in his world, his story for a captivating, heartbreaking, unforgettable two hours. The film may not be from 2019, but it’s my favourite one I saw for the first time this year and it will remain in my memory for a long time to come.