Movie Review: The Prince of Tides – Family Secrets & the Grace of God (May 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

Movie Review: The Prince of Tides

by Larry James
May, 1992

1Secrets destroy families. Barbra Streisand’s latest film basted on Pat Conroy’s brilliant novel, “The Prince of Tides,” uncovers the crippling secrets of a poor, white, South Carolina family. Tom Wingo, played brilliantly by Acadamy Award nominee Nick Nolte, along with his twin sister, Savannah, and his older brother Luke, grew up on Melrose Island, one of sixty sea islands in Colleton County, South Carolina. Raised by a violent, inattentive father and a deceitful, manipulative mother, the life of Tim Wingo flashes back and forth across the screen from childhood to the present as he and his sister’s psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand), attempt to save the life of suicidal Savannah Wingo.

Just beneath an entertaining, romantic story line, which violates all rules of doctor/patient decorum, viewers encounter the essence of life’s struggle at the end of the twentieth century. Luke, Tom, and Savannah grow up scarred by the cruel brutalities of an incredibly dysfunctional family. Forced into the role of “protector” of his youner brother and sister, Luke Wingo intervenes on several horror-filled occasions with courageous, and personally costly, acts of life-saving heroism. Continually doing battle against incredible odds, Luke ultimately loses his life in a battle with the United States government over a river project destined to destroy his beloved tidewater homeland. Savannah barely survives a nightmarish childhood to become a psychotic poet who writes about her life and the South utilizing metaphors and subjects drawn from Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Savannah’s pain prods Tomto function as his sister’s memory. In the process of remembering the childhood they shared, Tom Wingo discovers dark secrets about himself, his parents, childhood abuse he suffered, and the real nature of “the Southern Way of Life.”

Barbra Streisand, courtesy Columbia PicturesWhile working through his own and his family’s “issues,” Tom Wingo discovers sickness in his doctor’s life and family. Tom contracts to play football coach to Susan Lowenstein’s teenage son whose mostly absent father insists that his son become as accomplished a violinist as himself. The illicit web of inticmacy woven by Tom Wingo and his compelling physician leads to pain, honesty, rebirth, and regret for both doctor and patient.

Apart from its passion, suspense, roller coaster emotion, and Oscar-caliber performances, the strength of “The Prince of Tides” lies in how accurately it reflects the real-life struggles of ordinary people today. While viewing this film I experienced an almost overwhelming encounter with human pain. The agonizing memories of Tom Wingo seemed to parallel almost perfectly many stories shared with me in counseling situations in my office at church. Every week I meet with fathers who do not have a clue about how to communicate love to their children. Intimacy in marriage and family life presents an almost insurmountable challenge to most modern men and women. People expend incredible amounts of personal, psychic energy keeping family secrets safely buried. As a result, depression, adultery, child abuse, addictions of various sorts, and self-destruction flourish in our world and in our churches. Far too often the religious community, the church, does more to enable the keeping of secrets than it does to free people from the pain of denial and cover-up.

“The Prince of Tides,” probably unwittingly, displays the awesome power of cosmic Evil in our world. The only adequate explanation for the pain forced upo and endured by the Wingo children is the existence of an objective force for evil in the world. The irony and cruel power of this insidious evil can best be seeen in the manner in which it not only assaults its victims, but then follows through by sucking those who suffer the most into sinful behaviors themselves. The movie shattered my own self-righteousness by making me aware that no one can stand against the darkness alone and unaided.

What does a world like ours, a world so accurately and brilliantly understood and captured in Pat Conroy’s novel, need? I found myself turning this question over in my mind during the m ovie. What does a world so captive to the power of evil and so full of pain need most?

Our world needs relief from pain in the form of grace. Suffocating, irrational shame, like that which almost snuffed out Savannah Wingo’s life, spreads like an epidemic through our society today. Only in an environment of pure grace can crippling shame of this magnitude be relieved. Family secrets can be released and unlocked only in an environment of unconditional acceptance. Tom Wingo’s painful memory resuced his sister because Dr. Susan Lowenstein expressed and demonstrated love and grace again and again to both of her clients. In the face of such unrelenting evil our world needs the powerful grace of God more than anything else.

Second, people today need menaingful relationships as never before. Grace must move from the abstract to the concrete if pain is to be relieved. The hidden pain in Tom Wingo’s heart prevented him from trusting anyone enough to share intimacy or to develop a relationship of any real depth. Tom lived as a distant joker while his marriage crumbled before his eyes. Tom could not express his feelings about anything or anyone, even his wife. Only as people encounter grace in community can health, hope and feelings be rediscovered.

Third, people today need reality. Tom Wingo found his way back to life and sanity because he faced reality about himself and his family. In the safety provided by grace and a supportive relationship, Tom came to grips with who he was and what he wanted. Prior to therapy he resigned from teaching because he felt like a failure. In a touching scene at the end of the movie, Tom stands again in a high school classroom teaching English. After school he coaches football. Reflecting on his return to the career he loves, Tom confesses, “…I am a teacher, a coach, a well-loved man.” Considering his parents and his therapy, Tom concludes, “In New York I learned to love my father and mother in all their outrageous humanity.” At movie’s end Tom Wingo enjoys peace because he faced reality about his life.

Human pain finds relief and hope in grace, satisfying relationships, and reality. The church will discover renewal as it redefines its mission in these terms. To be faithful and effective in our pain-filled world we must reevaluate our priorities. “The Prince of Tides,” forces me to ask myself, “How can I and my church reach someone like Tom Wingo with the liberating truth of Jesus Christ?”Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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