In the Company of Rose Review: A Marriage Story

DOC NYC 2022

4 mins read

In the Company of Rose
(USA, 85 min.)
Dir. James Lapine


Rose Styron shares a brilliant piece of news with director James Lapine in In the Company of Rose. She tells him that she gave her late husband, William, some advice when he was writing the book Sophie’s Choice. She told him to take a scene from the first chapter and move it to the climax. That titular “choice” scene, interpreted so powerfully by Meryl Streep in the film adaptation, is a stroke so brilliant that “Sophie’s choice” endures as an idiom to describe a seemingly impossible decision.

As Lapine observes to Rose, it seems she understood the thematic structure of Sophie’s Choice better than her husband did. She insists that she simply responded to it as a mother. However, this candid conversation illustrates the unique perspective each person brings to a work based upon her or his experience. This facet of storytelling sits at the heart of Lapine’s documentary.

In the Company of Rose captures a series of conversations between Lapine and Styron over six years. Over the course of various lunches, Lapine captures the story of the poet, journalist, human rights ambassador, and mother. Styron, now 94, is an excellent raconteur. She enjoys a good rapport with Lapine, who appears mostly off-camera save for the final interview. Storytelling is in her bones, so she knows how to expand small details and punch a yarn with dramatic beats. She walks Lapine through courtship, friendship, and marriage, offering tidbits about good times with the Kennedys and illuminating their family’s love for Martha’s Vineyard. Styron spends a good time talking about her late husband and his work, too, but the film smartly keeps Rose the star of her own story.


Finding the Story

Lapine, best known as a playwright and collaborator with Stephen Sondheim (he also made the doc Six by Sondheim), admits that his conversations with Rose didn’t begin with any objective. The director amusingly pokes fun at the project’s lack of direction in its early stages. He offers some footage to show how he brought the camera on a whim to a lunch with Styron. The images, taken from the camera plopped on the table across from Styron as she sported a tennis skirt, resemble an homage to Basic Instinct. Lapine laughs at the early footage in In the Company of Rose and lets the story take shape in the edit and the final interview.

As Rose outlines her work, including poetry writing and advocacy trips with Amnesty International, the story always returns to Bill. Rose’s stories are frank and intimate, and through her openness and thoughtfulness, the conversations open the film to questions of authorship, ethical storytelling, monogamy, parenting, addiction, and sacrifice. She shares how her husband’s alcoholism and struggles with depression drove ups and downs in their relationship. However, as the Styron children and grandchildren pop in and out of the frame over the years, it’s clear they ultimately succeeded.

Lapine’s film isn’t so much a conventional biography or arts doc, but a thoughtful, personal study of what it means to make things work in a relationship. This portrait of sticking together through thick and thin suggests that, when it comes to relationships, commitment should ever be a “Sophie’s choice” decision. It’s a story people write together, so some drama is inevitable.


 In the Company of Rose premiered at DOC NYC.

Update: In the Company of Rose opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Sept. 1.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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