Thursday, 17 June 2010

Plenty (1985)

It has taken me a very long time to come around to believing that Meryl Streep is as great an actress as her fans would have you think. Her myriad Oscar nominations might attest to her clear superiority over most other actresses, but even her great roles from the 1980s have always left me cold. One could admire her acting chops without in any way warming to the character being depicted. Oddly enough the film that swung me 'round was Eastwood's "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995), where for the first time I could grasp the reality of the woman she was depicting. Since then, I have come to accept that hers is a real talent and I have begun to re-evaluate some of her earlier outings -- although a number of them still seem overly mannered to me.

The above film is, I think, a good case in point. Based on a stage play by David Hare and in a role originated by Kate Nelligan, Streep plays an Englishwoman (nearly impeccable accent) who was a courier in France with the Resistance during World War II. She fully believed that the 'glory' of those years and the idealism of her co-patriots, many of whom paid with their lives, would result in a better tomorrow for all mankind. However, back in London after the war's end and participating in a variety of upwardly mobile jobs, her existence and mental health become more and more fragile; she feels disillusioned by society, despite her life of 'plenty' with devoted diplomat husband, Charles Dance. The years pass, but she is unable to move on with her life; eventually she manages to alienate most of the other characters, to say nothing of this viewer, with her selfish and irrational tantrums. Her playing may have been a technical tour de force, but her histrionics left an empty hole and an air of tedium. Some have suggested that the play is really an allegory for Britain's decline on the world stage, but I just can't buy Streep's character embodying that.

Director Fred Schepsi, with whom Streep would work again, assembled a fascinating supporting cast to set off his star 'jewel', with the likes of Sam Neill, Tracey Ullman, Ian McKellen, Sting, and the always scene-stealing John Gielgud; but, with the exception of the latter, none of them are able to breathe life into this tale of self-pity and mental breakdown. Dance in particular comes across as a slightly wooden, emotional void, and even as Streep manages to ruin his career, one hopelessly looks for the believable anger that he should display. Thank goodness then for Gielgud, playing a career diplomat destroyed by the Suez crisis. At a tedious dinner party at Streep's home, he just about demolishes the pretentious wife of an oriental diplomat who has been rabbiting on about the angst in the "Norwegian" director Ingmar Bergman's films! Once his character is killed off, there is nothing left to amuse the viewer amongst the progressingly dreary action.
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