The French have liberty, equality and fraternity; the movies have caution, imitation and condescension. So it is that when an item or two comes along that seems daring, original and respectful of an audience’s intelligence, the inclination of the steady viewer is to do a quick buck and wing on Westwood Boulevard.
I can’t remember a film in recent months that has seemed so continuously startling, affecting and ultimately satisfying than the Fred Schepisi-David Hare translation to film of Hare’s play “Plenty.” The satisfaction, you have to say in a hurry, is in witnessing a kind of artistic perfection; the material is at last eloquently depressing.
I hadn’t seen the play, but the film’s leaps in time and space and the variety and elaboration of its settings make it near impossible to envision how the material could have been even hinted at on the proscenium stage. Only the bite and thrust of the dialogue and the sizzling theatricality of the confrontations remind you that it is, in fact, a theater piece.
“Plenty” is a daring exercise in several ways, not least in those forward leaps in time, which ask the viewer to do some quick deciphering of what has happened off camera, so to speak. It is daring as well in its uncompromising portrait of a woman coming apart at the seams. By extension, the author seems clearly to be portraying a Britain in disarray also. It is to that extent a courageous offering to American audiences, for whom the Suez crisis, for example, has virtually nothing of the resonance it continues to carry for the British.
American viewers indeed may not fully appreciate the heady optimism of Britain in the first years of postwar, amid the mounting disillusion that followed the collapse of empire and the economy and that gives the title “Plenty” its sharp irony.
Yet what is universal about “Plenty” is its truth, vested in the Meryl Streep character, that peacetime civilian life has been for millions a banal and dispiriting anticlimax after the idealism and excitements of wartime.
Streep has been a terrified volunteer in British Special Operations, working with the French underground, her life at risk 24 hours a day. Later life, even at its most prosperous, can’t match the romantic high drama and the sense of overwhelming purpose of the war months. She is not alone, or there would not be the battlefield tours and the regimental reunions.
(The quiet and lovely American film “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams” had Martin Balsam as a dispirited dentist seeking some kind of solace, or restoration, in a pilgrimage to his own wartime past.)
Like even the darkest works of Ingmar Bergman, “Plenty” has an artistic symmetry that transcends the gloom of the material. It is difficult, above all, to know what more to say in praise of Meryl Streep, who once again has been able to portray a complicated character who is different from any other she has played, yet whose origins appear marrow-deep. The characterization conceals the actress in a way that hints at a kind of sleight of soul.
She is even more beautiful than ever, and this time also tough, bitchy, neurotic, increasingly tormented.
Then again, all the performances--Charles Dance, Sir John Gielgud, Tracey Ullman, Sting, Sam Neill--are immaculate, and so is the rich and broody look of the piece. Schepisi, whose “Iceman” simply didn’t work, suggests, not for the first time, that a perfect script is still the director’s best friend.
Another adaptation offers its own kind of daring, even if it misses the high glow of “Plenty.” Norman Jewison’s filming of John Pielmeier’s play “Agnes of God” has taken its critical lumps along with its raves. It is admittedly not so immediate and socially compelling a theme as the exploration of black responses to racial prejudice in Jewison’s last film, “A Soldier’s Story.”
And yet within its own dramatic and suspenseful story (how did the novice nun become pregnant, did she indeed strangle her newborn infant, and is she competent to stand trial?), “Agnes of God” is also a provocative and engrossing exploration of a theme: which could, I suppose, be crudely stated as where does faith fit into modern life? Not quite a stop-the-presses inquiry, and it may be that the detective-story aspects of the plot nudge the theme aside. (The ironic alternate complaint is that the talk undercuts the suspense.)
What is clear is that the cloistered nuns reflect a traditional faith at its most austere and most pure: the quest for oneness with God through asceticism, a path not confined to Roman Catholicism. Anne Bancroft as the mother superior, a late vocation after she has seen as much of the secular world as she cares to, reflects the wistful but tough-minded search for spiritual peace amid the pressures of modern times.
Jane Fonda, the chain-smoking psychiatrist, is the angry embodiment of faith lost, presumably without regret but with lingering bitterness and hostility.
The division is perhaps a little less tidy than all that, thanks to the roundness of the characters Pielmeier and the actresses have generated.
In the end, the plot is not so tidily resolved either, as if the specifics at last don’t much matter (which is true). If there is a change, it is in Fonda’s realization that something within her, within many of us, seeks some intimation of a force beyond us, an Otherness--if not miracles, then the possibility of miracles.
“Agnes of God” is not a great deal cheerier than “Plenty,” offering its own glimpses of an unsatisfactory real world in which even the consolations of faith are not seized without difficulty.
The satisfactions of both films are in their aspirations to originality, and the courage to be about something.