“Mrs. Soffel,” an interesting and unusual film released in 1984, features Diane Keaton the wife of a prison warden who falls in love with a convicted murderer. It’s a romantic drama in the prison movie genre with fine acting and an exciting chase scene. Director Gillian Armstrong, who makes excellent dramas centered on female characters, effectively uses the claustrophobic location of the Allegheny County Jail in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, while making the love story seem plausible. Incredibly, the story is true, but that doesn’t make it easy for us to believe Mrs. Soffel and convict Ed Biddle (Mel Gibson) could fall in love.
As if to show how big a fall Mrs. Soffel takes in this drama, the movie begins with scenes in and around the jail, where Mrs. Kate Soffel lives with her stodgy husband, Warden Peter Soffel (Edward Herrmann). Armstrong and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner give us an indication of what a sensation the Biddle trial caused in Pittsburgh in 1901. The jury sentenced Ed Biddle and his younger brother Jack Biddle (Mathew Modine) to death by hanging, but the handsome brothers captured the sympathy of the public, particularly young women who not only professed the Biddle’s innocence but began picketing outside the Allegheny County Jail. Meanwhile, Keaton’s first scene shows her in bed at the warden’s quarters at the jail recuperating after a long illness. She suddenly gets up and begins preaching the Bible to the prisoners with renewed vigor.
Mrs. Soffel needs something to renew her passion besides religion, since it becomes clear that there’s not much love left in her marriage with Peter. She dotes on her children, but not out of a sense of duty; unlike her husband, who believes in following strict rules, Kate genuinely wants true happiness for her children and salvation and rehabilitation for the prisoners. Kate spends more time trying to convert the Biddles to the Bible, standing alone in front of their cells reading passages from the Bible. But Ed sees her as a chance to escape and hatches a plan to soften her resolve by appealing to her sense of justice. It works, and the two share a passionate kiss through the cell bars. Kate helps them escape, even though she’s got a lot to lose.
It takes awhile for the movie to open up, but when the Biddles and Kate go on the run, we’re treated with lovely scenery in a snowy landscape. The circumstances of three people in a horse-drawn sleigh running from a large posse imposes a serious time constriction on the story, but a scene at a friendly farmhouse fills in nicely the details of Kate and Ed’s devotion to each other. Jack Biddle (Modine) doesn’t do much, but Mathew Modine is the kind of actor who can use subtlety to his advantage. Trini Alvarado plays Irene, Kate’s 16 year-old daughter who recognizes that people must make a stand for happiness no matter what the consequences.