I thought I'd take a break from my compulsive August: Osage County updates and take a look at a film that I feel I've watched twice without really remembering what happens. In addition to enjoying Meryl's several lines delivered in French, after viewing it again I realized it's actually a really good character story. Plenty was adapted from David Hare's 1978 play about Susan Traherne, a British former agent for the French Resistance during World War II. The crux of the story is the internal and eventually external battle Susan (Meryl) goes through as she attempts to adjust to post-war life.
Around this self-destruction revolve various stories in a non-chronological timeline. After the fighting and a brief tryst with a fellow agent (played by Sam Neill) end, Susan takes a series of unfulfilling jobs, hoping to find something even remotely resembling the excitement and drive of purpose she felt during war time. She is unsuccessful in this endeavor, as she is in trying to fill the void by conceiving a child with an almost-stranger, Mick, played by Sting. Yes, Sting. During this time we see her befriend the young Alice Park, played by Tracey Ullman. Alice becomes a sort of background partner in Susan's eccentricities and ultimate catalyst in squabbles with her diplomat husband, Raymond (Charles Dance).
I was intrigued in learning about the general sense of disillusionment that was apparently felt among many Europeans after the war, particularly English high society. Susan finds the day to day pleasantries and unquestioned existence too much. She slowly self destructs, illustrated by a series of progressively selfish, uncontrolled diatribes against her husband and his colleagues. One of Meryl's best scenes is with Sir John Gielgud, who plays an English diplomat whom Susan considers, along with many others, to be a stuffy, out of date blunderer.
We don't see it in this clip, but my favorite line from the movie comes earlier in this scene, when the Burmese ambassador, struggling with his word choice remarks "The English language, she is a demanding mistress...you beat her and the bitch obeys." A tad disturbing and misogynistic perhaps, but I thought it funny nonetheless. Anyway, I think Meryl does a great job here of portraying someone's who just seems bored. The decorum of the dinner party gathering is something against which she is trying to rail. How best to shake things up? Susan's way is to become rude, and to belittle and attempt to embarrass her husband. She succeeds.
After essentially ruining her husband's prospects of advancement, Susan decides to go behind his back and insist on a promotion within his office. Here Susan finds her intellectual match in Sir Andrew Charleson (played by Ian McKellen). When she learns that her efforts will not result in an advancement in her husband's weakened career, we see her damaged psyche in full effect as she threatens to kill herself. The destruction is complete when her last desperate and delusional attempt at finding purpose (converting her home into a house for battered wives) is stopped short by Raymond trying to finally get through to her. It doesn't work.
Roger Ebert had a good quote about Meryl in this film saying she gives "a performance of great subtlety; it is hard to play an unbalanced,
neurotic, self-destructive woman, and do it with such gentleness and
charm...Streep creates a whole character around a woman who could have
simply been a catalogue of symptoms." It makes one question why Meryl wasn't really recognized for awards in this film. Well, I'm not saying it absolutely warranted an Oscar nom (which it did), but she had another little film released in 1985 called Out of Africa. We'll leave that discussion for a future post in "Snubs."