Meryl Streep, Plenty
Saturday, January 14, 2006
Saturday, April 09, 2005
“…. [Schepisi's] ripping and snorting echo the restlessness of Hare's ferocious protagonist, Susan Traherne (Meryl Streep), a sophisticated English scrapper who yearns to level the complacent walls surrounding her…. Susan can't stop daydreaming about the bravery, even the sense-quickening terror, she experienced as a young Special Operations courier secreted in occupied France…. Plenty is about how Susan wrecks her life and the lives of everyone around her in an attempt to recaputure that evanescent sensation--the heady thrall of a cause.
“"I intended to show the struggle of a heroine against a deceitful and emotionally stultified class," Hare has said of his play. And on Broadway that was the problem. Plenty the play was didactic and unpersuasive, mainly because you never saw much of the class Hare was railing against. Susan's noble anger was the whole show--especially since she was played by the fierce (and fiercely theatrical) Kate Nelligan. But in Schepisi's version, the world around Susan opens up….
“Schepisi may be the most underrated movie director now working: he captures the discourse between men and their landscapes more powerfully than any filmmaker since John Ford. Which is exactly what Plenty needed. Standing in the sunstruck meadows of France, Susan shoots out light beams; amid the comfy clutter of bhemian London, she's jivey and loose-limbed; sitting on the committee for Queen Elizabeth's coronation, she wears dark suits and sensible shoes. She's a kind of actress, and Meryl Streep shows us how fervently this perfect chameleon longs to shed her skin and skamper away. It's an icily brilliant performance. Streep's Susan is no longer the fuming dragon of the stage production; she's softer and more vulnerable. There's a gorgeous moment near the beginning when, about to kiss Lazar, she hesitates, and then makes a swanlike swoop toward his mouth. She has considered caution and thrown it to the wind--and in one tiny stroke Streep has told us nearly everything about her. [Then what's the rest of the movie about?] One quibble: as the character toughens and learns to hide, so does Streep. Her performance becomes crusty and grandiose--it begins to outwit itself. By then, however, it has accumulated enormous emotional power. When the film ends, we are no longer asking ourselves whether we approve of this woman. Streep has bonded us to her.
“Susan is never very far from madness, and Hare views insanity as the British often do--as a form of vivifying rebellion. Bemoaning their own infamous stuffiness, the English tend to admire bulls in china shops: destructive personalities may be impolite, but by God they have Life. Perhaps only an Australian director and an American actress could have weaned Plenty from such nonsense… Schepisi's Susan isn't a warrior against her class, she's a rebel without a cause, a woman who learned to time her life to the rhythms of war and now simply can't find the peacetime beat. Susan is a freak, a tweedy female Rambo, addicted to war the way men sometimes are--the way that no respectable English rose could afford to be. In Plenty, Schepisi has created something far more fascinating that any phony-profound folderol about repression amid bounty. He's created that rarity, an indelible character: a woman who can never stop beating the bushes for the enemy, can never stop expecting mystery lovers to drop from the skies.”
Vanity Fair, October 1985
“…. The opposition, like a gnat on the rump of a hedgehog, is one lone woman, a strong-willed beauty who violates every code of British behavior, stepping on toes and wrecking lives in the name of idealism.
“As created by David Hare… , Susan Traherne is one of the mort fascinating and troubling heroines of modern literature. Is she an intellectual shock troop of one, acting out the playwright's impulses as scourge of the atrophied bourgeoisie? Or is she a selfish egotist, smarter than most of the people around her but not as smart as she thinks she is, spewing out sarcasm as a substitute for doing anything? Although the question still can't be answered categorically (your answer may depend on your age and politics), the casting of Meryl Streep as Susan, and Charles Dance as her diplomat husband, has created a seismic shift in the way we regard Hare's characters and makes Plenty work better as a movie than play.
“If anyone had asked me, I'd have said do anything to the play but don't throw out Kate Nelligan and Edward Herrmann. In fact, nothing else has been altered…. Hardly a word of dialogue has been changed, yet we hear speeches we hadn't heard before, feel the play as an infinitely more ample, less mean-spirited work.
“Susan is woman whose great moment is behind her…. As played by Nelligan, Susan was all fire and ice, quicksilver bitchiness with an animal magnetism that paved the way for her conquests and outrages, and an intelligence that made them less forgivable. This was a woman who was too much in control to go crazy, and too smart not to perceive the discrepancy between her ideals and her behavior. As she chewed up men and spit them out for breakfast, continuing to occupy the moral high ground, we began to hate her, and to resent Hare for expecting us to see her as a hero, a feminist before her time.
“Streep makes something altogether different of Susan. She has none of Nelligan's drop-dead sexual electricity. When, as hostess of a dinner party (a glorious piece of social satire in both play and movie), she makes a dramatic late entrance, she elicits none of the gasps that Nelligan got in that plunging black gown. But by the same token, her lashing out at the British ambassador, played by John Gielgud, has less pure savagery. She has a naïve, almost obtuse quality (her Americanness shining through?), an earnestness that makes Susan more human. She really believes all that claptrap about making the world over, enough to go mad and nasty with despair.
“…. [A]s it moves through time and gathers intention, Plenty fulfills its promise as a sparkling masterwork as mercurial as its heroine, and one of the major films in a surprisingly strong year. Through the power of Streep's performance, we are granted a double vision, the young woman within the older one, that challenges our private defenses and memories as few movies do. In the shadow of the foreground, with its atmosphere of compromise and betrayal, we are made to feel the ghostly presence of the young idealist who felt--as we all did once--that everything was possible.”
Vogue, October 1985
[Get more on Schepisi's direction, which Haskell didn't write highly of?]
“Most intriguing of all, Plenty is a kind of aghast celebration of a woman who will not settle for popular answers about what she wants or what it is to be English. With Hare's text, and Meryl Streep's very brave performance, Schepisi showed us a woman helplessly drawn to terrible, dangerous gestures. Perhaps one needs to have been--or to have wanted to be--English to feel the movie's pain. Plenty seemed to me at first a failure, too tied to self-pity and too blurred in writing and casting. But I cannot get the film out of my head, and I'm still not sure how much of that comes from Hare, Streep, or Schepisi. My only answer so far is that there are three profound, unstable talents, drawn toward difficulty and discomfort.
A Biographical Dictionary of Film
Third Edition, 1994, p 671
On Fred Schepisi
“She was astounding again in Plenty…, though it was ominously clear by then that her taste was for women no one else could endure…. And A Cry in the Dark is a film that any young actress should examine.
“Is this Streep's fate--is she just an academic model? I think her depth is too great to accept failure now. But she has shown no instinct for organizing her own career….”
A Biographical Dictionary of Film
Third Edition, 1994, pp 722-3
"I want to change everything, and I don't know how," says Susan Traherne, the spectacularly restless heroine of David Hare's celebrated play Plenty…. As a young woman, Susan (Meryl Streep) serves as a courier for the British secret service in occupied France. What happens to her there--the danger, the glamour, the hair-raising chance meetings--leaves her with an expansive and heroic vision of life's possibilities, a vision she cannot ever fulfill in England's gray postwar years. Horribly frustrated, she becomes a troublemaker, a madwoman, a bitch.
“Hare sets Plenty against the waning years of the Empire, a period in which, in his view, British power collapsed into an obsession with loyalty, propriety, and manners. But manners are precisely what Susan rages against as an offense against truth. Edgy and combative, she feels superior to most of the people she meets and works with; she makes scenes, falls apart, and becomes a misery both to herself and to the devoted man (Charles Dance) she marries, a career diplomat. Her only refuge is memory….
“What does Susan mean when she says that she wants to "change everything"? After the war, she never leaves her drawing room except to rampage through jobs for which she is patently unsuited. Her remark doesn't link up with anything specific that she does or even hopes for. Susan has a challenging temperament for a heroine--Hare has made her both courageous and dislikable, both noble and ineffective--but as John Simon pointed out when the play opened here, Susan doesn't make sense, she doesn't add up….”
“…. Hare… gives her no political interests or identity at all. Certainly there were more than a few people around after the war who would have been glad to tell her exactly "how" it was possible to "change everything," but none of ther even makes an appearance, and Susan herself does not become a Communist, a Socialist, a Laborite, a disarmament-leagur, an anti-vivisectionist, or even a Salvation Army major. And though some women might claim her as a victim of male supremacy, she doesn't become a feminist either. [Doesn't she have a bit of a "Nietzchean" morality, but with a group identity? I don’t think that’s exactly an oxymoron.] As far as we can make out, she is completely self-absorbed.”
“But let us take her as Hare presents her--as a young person who joined up purely for excitement. What might she have done with herself after the war? A woman with a habit of flamboyant self-expression, eager to set everyone straight; eloquent, melodramatic, bracing--such a woman might have become an actress. Or perhaps a teacher or writer. No? All right then! A heroine of private life, a heroine of selfishness (… for example, Gwendolyn Harleth in George Elliot's Daniel Deronda). But Susan… [left out]
“Susan rails against cant and evasion. She wants life to be large and vivid and as clear-cut as a slap across the face. With that much anger in her, what on earth is she doing workings as… [Denby runs through her jobs]…. Enough! It is not Susan but the playwright who has found the wrong jobs. His conception of the character is false….
[leaving out a lot on Susan's character--too tired]
“Meryl Streep brings her considerable gentleness to the role, so her outbreaks of temper are truly shocking, and she has one great scene--a dinner party during the Suez crisis, in which she is smashingly dressed in a black strapless gown and her neck looks snaky and powerful, darting this way and that as she rakes the guests and her husband with her scorn for Britain's declining power. She can make neurosis disturbingly sexual. In scene after scene, she achieves a beautifully sustained mood, but she doesn't show us how the moods are connected to one another. How could she? Susan has no core--she's an idea for a character, not a living woman, and the greatest actress in the world couldn't make sense of her.”
New York, September 30, 1985
[Most characters aren't living people, Stanley Kauffmann's occasional remarks notwithstanding.]
“…. It's designed to exact an ambivalent response to its heroine, Susan Traherne, whom some will see as a brave soul, and some as a madwoman. And neither Fred Schepisi… nor Meryl Streep, who plays the ragingly difficult heroine, betrays Hare's heretical intentions….[lo little]
“…. Against the "peace and plenty" and genteel repression of the rebounding British nation, Susan stands as a loud and increasingly unstable critic… But Susan is not some pure, uncorruptible soul. What makes her exasperating is her refusal to actually do anything about her discontent. Much as we want to embrace her idealism, we can't deny that she's a selfish, self-absorbed scold, as much a product of her time as its victim. Unable to change the world, she acts out her disdain in destructive outbursts.
“…. [A]bove all, "Plenty" is graced with a sterling cast, dominated by Streep's daring and splendid performance. Her very first scenes as a young woman seem far too brittle and edgy, but there is little else to quarrel with….”
Newsweek, date ?
[haven’t read all this one]:
“The Susan is Meryl Streep. I've been fervent about her since her drama school days, but I think her performance here--excepting Still of the Night, which was just a blip on the screen for all concerned--is her least successful film work to date. This is a relative statement, relative to Streep's gifts, which easily embrace the emotional range of this role. But her voice sounds limited, uninflected, insufficiently interesting. Vocal richness has long been a problem for her, I think; and here she is surrounded by English actors brought up in a tradition where the voice is not just a means of making words audible but is the instrument with which acting begins. That tradition is not one of hammy scooping and gliding but of belief in the magic of the word itself and of the finest shades of inflection. Streep has several big scenes to play with John Gelgud, the emperor of this tradition; one long scene with Ian McKellen, who is very adept in it; and a great deal to play with Charles Dance, who is decently competent in it. All of them, merely by using their techniques truthfully, make Streep sound vocally lackluster. Even Tracey Ullman, a young woman of limited experience, has, simply by virtue of an ear conditioned to England's English, more color than Streep. Unlike Streep's work with accents in Sophie's Choice and The Seduction of Joe Tynan, she seems here so concerned about merely sounding English that it absorbs much of her imaginative energy. (Her English role in The French Lieutenant's Woman was in a quite different vein--lush romance.)….”
New Republic, Aug. 12&19,
(partial retraction later? He lists this perf among her good ones)
“Plenty would seem to be the more accessible of the two [the other movie Sarris was reviewing was Sheer Madness] not only because it is spoken in English rather than German, but also because Meryl Streep is generally granted a special dispensation by art-house audiences to translate difficult projects into PBS platitudes. Plenty, as a case in point, would probably not have been bankable with Kate Nelligan, the original Susan Traherne, in the lead. Streep, though seemingly miscast early in the proceedings, ends up making the ever censorious, ever destructive Susan more vulnerable and sympathetic than she was on the stage. Streep clearly lacks Nelligan's intuitive sensuality and unaffected bitchiness, but she wills herself into the role through the sheer industriousness of her technique.
“…. [T]he assorted performances of Streep, Dance, Gielgud, McKellan, Sting, and Ullman are exemplary, each in its own venturesome way. In short, Plenty is plenty good… My problem with Susan Traherne remains, however--though, again, it may be an age problem. When I first read Hedda Gabler, in high school as it happened, I was all on Hedda's side. The world was simply not good enough, nor fast enough, nor exciting enough to meet her high standards. Later in Columbia, the late Joseph Wood Krutch took the side of the world against Hedda, and I felt chastened. Ever since, I've been wary of any signs of the sin of despair that nowadays accompanies so much of the thunder from the left.”
Village Voice, September ?, 1985
“Plenty, David Hare's sick-soul-of-England play… features an all-inclusive malaise: hypocrisy, purposelessness, emotional atrophy. Meryl Streep's Susan Traherne lives as aimless an existence as Jeanne Moreau did back in Antonioni's La Notte, but she's a whole lot more vocal about it…. David Hare had a bright (sneaky) idea when he wrote this play: he uses Susan Traherne to voice his own judgments of what has gone rancid in England since the war. That is, he has turned his own preachiness into the courage and intellectual clarity of an abrasive woman. Disillusioned with England's materialist values, Susan Traherne doesn't lie to herself, and she can't keep what she thinks to herself, either. She's always telling people off, and her outspokenness turns her into a scourge, and eventually into a basket case…. We're given to understand that there's no place in the society for her ruthless, embittered honesty; her mind will have to be dulled, she will have to be treated as an invalid or, worse, a lunatic….
[Kael compares and contrasts Susan with Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger]….
“The role of the martyred independent-minded woman is bound to magnetize actresses, but Hare's putting his denunciation of the stultifying affluent society into Susan's mouth and having her go over the edge from the strain of carrying around so much truth is a bad bright idea. The center of the material is nothing but showoffy verbiage--Susan Traherne is a walking harangue. An actress with a vivid presence might give the role something of her own substance--as Vanessa Redgrave does in Hare's Wetherby…--but Meryl Streep isn't that kind of actress. She's strictly an interpreter, and her interpretive skills don't help her here. I can't point to any scenes where she falters, except in the opening and closing moments, in which she's the teen-age Susan. In the first, she seems coated with makeup, as if youth were a matter of a perfect wax job, and she overdoes her openmouthed fear; she's brittle and eccentric. In the last (a flashback), she's fake naïve, and the material defeats her: it reëmphasizes the irony of Susan's blasted hopes which we've already gnawed on for two hours. For the rest, she's proficient, yet vocally bland and totally lacking in the neurotic strength that might lend the role a semblance of believability. As she plays the part, there's no imploded energy in Susan's rudeness and no force in the film. She just isn't there….
“According to Hare, Plenty is "a film about the cost of spending your whole life in dissent…. Susan is prepared to pay that high price." But that's not what the film is about. Susan isn't prepared to pay anything; she doesn't make choices--she's driven. And she isn't a dissenter in any recognizable sense. She's the mouthpiece of an upper-crust leftist playwright expressing his contempt for his class as if that were a revolutionary act….
The New Yorker, October 7, 1985
Hooked, pp 41-45
“…. But an actor doesn't have to be English to talk nice. Meryl Streep is American, and throughout the whole movie she talks in an English accent just as good as that of most of the people who speak the real thing, except maybe for John Gielgud… , and a lot better than some, like Sting…
“As Susan, Streep manages something quite astonishing: She plays out her character's actions in each scene, without ever actually creating the character. You're aware that you're watching a performance, but nothing is coming across. It is as if her speakers were out. We follow Susan across the course of her life, but, from scene to scene, there is no emotional continuity, and, in the true sense, the character exists only in separate pieces. We know, of course, what the character is supposed to be feeling, at least in most cases. Streep portrays Susan's rage and disillusionment without conveying it, as if she were intentionally allowing herself to express only the surface details of the character. In the production notes for the film, Streep talks about how she "loved her anger and the size of it," but we never feel it. When at one point in the film she explodes at the young man (Sting) she enlisted to get her pregnant (without success) by firing a round of bullets from a pistol into the wall above his head, her action comes as a shock.
“The problems with Streep's performance in the film are compounded by the filmmakers' inability to make up their minds about what they really think of Susan. Plenty is about the long, painful slide from the mountaintops of youth, about lost ideals and unfulfilled promise. The film is a tragedy, and Susan is its tragic heroine….
“On one level, Plenty is a bull-in-a-China-shop movie, with Susan rampaging through the stuffy calm of the English bourgeoisie. Susan makes demands on the world, but it is uncertain whether Hare sees them as unrealistic demands. At one point, when Susan disrupts a dinner party by announcin her violent disagreement with British actions in the Middle East, Hare suggests that her malcontentedness is the result of a superior moral sensibility--the legitimate response to the English tendency to push things under the rug…. On the other hand, Susan simply seems uncompromising, destructive, and ill-equipped to deal with the real world. [ellipsis joins ideas sufficiently?] She's too good for the world in the same way the "angry young men" of a somewhat later period were. She's like John Osborne's Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, but without his tantalizing animal vigor or his language. Porter also thought of himself as a big man trapped in a role which was too small for him, but Osborne didn't ask us to look at him as a hero. He knew he was a loudmouth and a heel. But at least Porter let us know what he stood for (endlessly). In Plenty, Susan's concerns appear to be as much about a romantic nostalgia for the past as anything else. Not only is she a rebel without a cause, she doesn't have much of an agenda either.
“Susan might have been a truly compelling figure if Hare had enabled us to empathize with her suffering and, at the same time, show us it's not good enough that she is in pain, that her self-indulgence and violence are unforgiveable. [Can’t we see that anyway?] But Hare, and the movie, are too concerned with making the character sympathetic, and in doing so they steal her thunder. Instead of a genuine heroine, she becomes the poster child for post-war disillusionment.”
St. Louis, September 1985
“In Plenty Meryl Streep peers pensively through many windows…. [lo, get] Pale and choleric, Streep's Susan seems to be glaring at the whole dreary postwar scene from a glassy remove--her eyes are another set of windows. And into those windows the audience peeks, hoping to discover what turned Susan into such a royal pain. Socially, Susan Traherne is a room-clearing terror; she creates quarrelsome scenes, ….[LO, get] (she has the acid touch of Virginia Woolf's snobbery without Woolf's compensating genius). Yet Plenty doesn't see Susan as an overzealous pill squandering her energies in petty squabbles--it presents her as a wild electric charge in an era of moral deadness. She's like Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, fed up with stale air and hypocrisy, and raging. Idealism has made her half-mad because she can find no liberating outlet for it. She's a rebel without a cause.
“That's the premise, and to paraphrase Johnny Carson, if you buy the premise, you'll buy the movie. I didn't and I don't….
“Kate Nelligan, who originated the role of Susan Traherne on the stage, had a great blood-flush of temper and a rib cage of steel; her furies made the walls rock. By comparison, Meryl Streep's Susan seems more brittle and easily manageable. In Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, there's a church called Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, and Meryl Streep, devout and serious, is Plenty's patron saint of perpetual responsibility. One can almost see her up there on the altar, surrounded by votive candles, clutching an Oscar in each hand. She works hard, but there's too much waxy yellow buildup on her martyrdom. Only once, when Streep is excitedly pulling off her earrings at a dinner party, does she squirm out and begin to burst the confines of her devotional calling. [As I had read his review, perhaps incorrectly, Wolcott earlier called the dinner party scene, apparently viewing it as a whole, "the worst scene in Plenty."] Yet if Susan had been played by Nelligan or Vanessa Redgrave (another powerhouse), Plenty still would have insurmountable problems. Motivationally, it's just too underrealized, too withheld, too darkly cryptic. There are no dancing skeletons in this movie's closets--only moths flapping their musty wings.”
Texas Monthly, October 1985