Director Fred Schepisi gives “Plenty,” which opens Thursday at Mann’s National, Westwood, a surface as cool and as opaque as pewter. But be a little patient: What builds beneath this quiet exterior, shot through with dark wit, is a haunting examination of the price that romantic idealism can exact.
As the film’s flawed heroine, Meryl Streep gives the most beautifully modulated performance of her career. It’s not her showiest--that would still have to be the dazzling extremes of “Sophie’s Choice.” As the willful, dangerous, fascinating Susan Traherne, Streep’s work is rich and complex. (It’s also, for the first time, completely free of her trademark mannerisms--the self-deprecating nervousness; the hand snaking nervously through her hair--and all the stronger for it.)
Brave but unstable and too coruscatingly perceptive for her (or anyone else’s) own good, Susan Traherne is no picnic. She will not compromise by one iota the ideals she forged as a British courier in occupied France during World War II. After the war she wants two things from life: laughter and a sense of purpose. What she finds are meaningless jobs at the stuffy fringes of the diplomatic corps and at an ad agency shooting TV dog-food commercials. Susan’s reaction to her growing sense of alienation and frustration is full-tilt guerrilla warfare against Them.
In David Hare’s original play, reviewers pointed to the deeply unsympathetic quality of Susan Traherne. In the film, which Hare adapted, Susan is still horrifyingly destructive to at least two quite decent men (Charles Dance as her long-suffering diplomat husband and Sting, whom she wants only sexually and specifically). But Schepisi lets Streep make Susan less of a shrew than the defender of an impossible faith. Her awful alienation by the film’s end has a truly tragic dimension.
That may come from the deepening of the play itself, which had been called “distant and disillusioned.” Exquisitely beautiful and intelligent, “Plenty” now also seems measurably warmer. Hare, working for producers Edward Pressman and Joseph Papp, has been daring in his screenplay, although he has kept the skeleton of the play intact. It still follows Susan (and, not coincidentally, the spiraling fortunes of England itself) from 1943 to 1962, with a final scene set again in France just at the war’s end.
Manipulating the play like an accordion, Hare has pushed in or expanded, giving it sonorities and fullnesses here, eliminating characters there. His greatest strengthening comes in the crucial liaison that opens the film, a brief sexual encounter between the impassioned, frightened young Susan and an anonymous fellow British freedom fighter (Sam Neill) who has just parachuted out of a crippled plane into German-occupied France. Their hot and almost wordless moments together become, in Susan’s mind, a high point of glory.
This pivotal scene is only improved on film. We see that pinkly glowing “mackerel sky” that will haunt her memories as we plunge with her into the postwar decades.Susan’s irrepressible friend Alice Park, whose gift is not just for home-wrecking but for deep friendship, is played by young British singer/comedienne Tracey Ullman who is superb. Alice cannot be simply a wry, wisecracking “bohemian”; there must be enormous reserves of empathy as well as canniness behind those round eyes. Ullman’s performance suggests all those dimensions.
In “Plenty’s” great set-piece role as Sir Leonard Darwin, the mordantly glittering ex-ambassador whom Susan tardily comes to admire, is John Gielgud at the very top of his form. The result is one of the most explosively hilarious scenes in recent memory: Susan’s “diplomatic” dinner party during the Suez crisis, in which Gielgud must fend off both a relentlessly avid Burmese undersecretary and the cheerfully dangerous Susan, fulminating over the political situation.
Dance (who played Guy Perron in “The Jewel in the Crown”) is fine but, with the exception of his last scene, he must be less than charismatic; the role requires that he lose some of the spark that endears him to us initially. Sting, whose character makes the disastrous mistake of falling in love when lust was all that was required, is splendid in a brief appearance, as is Sam Neill. Ian McKellen is exceptional as the foreign secretary to whom Streep appeals to hear what she very well already knows: that her husband’s career is being downgraded as a result of her lifelong lack of discretion.
Just a little underneath the surface of “Plenty” is anger, cloaked at times in irony, at the worst of British qualities. “Irony is central to English humor,” David Hare wrote in his performance notes, “and as a people we are cruel to each other, but always quietly.” What quiet, hypnotic, “civilized” cruelty “Plenty” observes, and how faultlessly.