After three months of illness, Kate Soffel, the wife of the warden of the Allegheny County Jail, resumes visiting the prisoners. She distributes Bibles and reads the scriptures to those who will listen. At home, she takes care of four children.
The Biddle brothers, who are being held at the jail, are the talk of the town in turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh. Ed and his younger brother Jack have been sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of a grocer during a robbery. Outside the jail, social activists protest the death penalty while teengage girls, infatuated with Ed, besiege the guards to take presents inside. Even one of the Soffel daughters regards the Biddles as folk heroes; she is keeping a scrapbok of newspaper stories about them.
When Kate first lays eyes on Ed Biddle, she doesn't know what to make of this handsome man whose face bears a slight scar from a suicide attempt. They talk about God, death, heaven. During another visit, Ed touches her hands through the bars. A sensitive man, perhaps an innocent one, he can also turn violently angry in a second.
Kate, who is opposed to capital punishment, writes a letter to the governor asking for a review of the Biddle case. Her straight-laced husband, concerned about his position, chastises her for this inappropriate gesture. But Kate has fallen in love with Ed, and when he gives her a poem celebrating the blessed results of her charity upon his life, he wins her undying loyalty. Soon she is standing in front of his cell reading I Corinthians 13 while Ed fishes two small saws out of her boots.
Mrs. Soffel is based on a true story. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner effectively conveys the connection between these two very different people. Diane Keaton, in one of her best performances in years, portrays Kate as a principled woman who risks her life to find a love that is both soulful and physically exciting. Mel Gibson as Ed Biddle turns in a character portrait much better than his recent roles in The River and The Bounty. He is a hardened criminal who desperately wants forgiveness from someone he both loves and respects. In other words, Ed is in search of a little heaven on earth.
Gillian Armstrong directs this love story in a cinematic style reminiscent of her affecting My Brilliant Career. The film vividly conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of the prison, the dankness of Pittsburgh, and the Victorian texture of life at that time. She also draws out fine performances from Ed Herrmann, Matthew Modine, and Trini Alvarado in smaller roles.
When Ed and Jack escape from the prison, Kate decides to join them. On the road as fugitives from justice, she and Ed forge a bond which transcends her marriage of eighteen years and his life of crime. In the little time they have together, they grace each other with understanding, forgiveness, and a tenderness neither of them has ever known before. Mrs. Soffel is filled with images of spiritual longing. With this ending, it becomes more than an unlikely love story it is also a truly religious film.