Monday, June 12, 2023

Snubs #6: "Plenty"

Now that I've completed my year-long supporting recasting project, I've got a little more time and space to consider some other posts. It's also been a relatively quiet period for project news for some months, and while we await the release of the third season of Only Murders in the Building, I happened to take a quick peek at what I'd previously posted in the Snubs tag. 

Plenty, based on David Hare's play, was released in 1985, the same year as Out of Africa. I honestly feel like I can almost stop arguing anything further about what might have prevented Meryl from getting recognized for awards consideration for Plenty other than the fact that she happened to have a more prestigious, showy, and viewed film out the same year. We all know Meryl was nominated for an Academy Award for her lead role in Out of Africa (the film won Best Picture). But what do we think the chances of her having otherwise squeaked in (at least somewhere) for portraying Susan Traherne, a woman who subsequently disassembles after finding life back in England post her participation in the French Resistance during World War II void of meaning. 

I happen to think that Plenty is not only a pretty good movie, but also a brilliantly portrayed character study on Meryl's part. Susan is an otherwise stable and strong person, but she struggles with the banality of life after the war that she ends up hurting herself and everyone around her. It's one of the few roles Meryl has done that deeply covers the pain and struggle (for both the person and their loved one) someone can go through when they suffer from mental illness. It wasn't necessarily talked about a lot in that way back then (or even when the movie came out), but those details and nuances had to have been a tricky road to navigate for Meryl, and I expect that few people would've done as good of a job. And as much as I enjoy both the film and Meryl's performance in Out of Africa, dare I say I think the actual character in Plenty is more interesting and complicated. It may have just been easier to get pulled along with all the fuss surrounding Africa than to garner awards recognition than for the much quieter Plenty. 


All this isn't to say that there may have been a large crop of people who simply didn't think Meryl's performance was worthy of their vote. 1985 was a crowded year for ladies in a leading role (imagine that), even if Out of Africa and Plenty competed a year apart at BAFTA (they were released in different years in the UK). The film wasn't necessarily a critical darling nor a box office smash, but both Tracey Ullman and John Gielgud happened to get BAFTA nominations for their supporting roles. I just can't help but expect that Meryl would've been pushed harder (or at all) for her role in Plenty for the North American awards groups had she not had the behemoth that was Out of Africa, a film which in addition to its aforementioned Best Picture win at the Oscars, was nominated in eleven total categories, ultimately winning seven. 


  1. Plenty is a real masterpiece and Meryl is terrific as Susan. I loved it as Cry in the dark, Silkwood and One true thing. Great movies, great roles.

  2. I loved this performance and the movie is sadly not well remembered. Did Meryl shoot this before or after Out Of Africa?

    If it had been released in 1986 it may have got more attention

    1. According to IMDb, Out of Africa filmed in early 1984 with Plenty later that fall.

  3. She famously didn’t get along with Charles Dance on the set of Plenty but he might have actually been a good match as Denis Finch Hatton to her Karen Blixen in Out of Africa.

    I thought Plenty was uneven but Meryl has a lot of brilliant scenes, my favorite being the one where she has a mental breakdown and shoots (at) Sting. And it created a lifelong friendship with Tracey Ullman!

    I also love the Bruce Smeaton score - sad and haunting. He also scored A Cry in the Dark and did a beautiful job.

  4. Plenty is one of my favourite films of all time.

    I first rented the VHS tape from the local video shop when I was 15. Streep was the drawcard, but I'd known of Australian director Fred Schepisi after his breakout locally made film The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, an earlier filmic portrait of dissatisfaction. Also, Australian composer Bruce Smeaton had penned the music in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, and knew how to play second fiddle to a creative powerhouse (his almost incidental score in that film had to compete with the iconic pan pipes chosen at the last minute in the editing process of that movie); and unofficial Aussie, Kiwi Sam Neill had starred in My Brilliant Career with Judy Davis, so there was a strong Australian creative component in the team behind Plenty.

    At 15, most of the themes went way over my head, but the 'October nights' monologue ignited something in me. I don't think I'd ever seen anything so emotional, and then so powerfully rebutted by the other main character in the scene ('Can't you just stop f**king talking for five fucking minutes on end?'). It also made me realise there was so much more to know about the middle of the 20th century, the impacts of war on my grandparents' generation. In literature class that year, we'd studied the works of New Zealand 'Bloomsbury' author Katherine Mansfield, who was renowned for 'difficult' protagonists, and Plenty cemented the possibility that creative writing could delve into the darkness that people carry with them.

    Over the years, I have rewatched it at regular intervals. There is so much to discover, each time. The level of detail is incredible, and every frame is beautifully designed... the lights on Tower Bridge, the little flags for Coronation, the Mackerel sky. All magic, offset by the drama of the gunshots fired at the ceiling, the compelling yet loveless sex scene, the sparkle of Tracey Ullmann, the eloquent vitriol of Gielgud, and that ripping portrayal of ur Thatcherism from Ian McKellan.

    I believe those who don't like this film yearn for a more satisfying ending, but that would have been a betrayal of Susan Traherne's unresolved need for more. Hare captured a lonely, unresolved period for women. Not all 'land girls' went back to happy marriages.

    The release of this in the same season as Out of Africa shows was demand Streep was in at the time. I just cannot picture any other actor playing Susan Traherne. Clearly, neither could she, or Schepisi.

    This monologue is like watching a live play. No edits. Smeaton's score dances over and under the lines, engaging Traherne's emotional state in a gentle – and apt – aerial 'dog fight'.

    Genuinely, if I had to choose one Streep film at the expense of all other, Plenty is it.

    1. Wow thanks for sharing, Mike. So interesting to read your perspective of how this film affected you at a young age your insight into what makes it such a compelling performance from Meryl. I hadn't really put together the Aussie component to the production background. I'm probably going to revisit this movie within the next week.

  5. I just watched Plenty again, many years (possibly 20) since I last saw it. It took some finding... no streaming service I could find has it available in Australia, so I tracked down a second-hand DVD!

    I found it as rich as ever, but noticed plenty of new aspects this time, like the way Susan uses her real name in WWII France, when the screenplay has just explained how Resistance operatives were supposed to use a codename… or is she using her codename after the war?; and the similarity in styling of Lazar and Mick (Sam Neill and Sting), which I'd never taken note of before. So when Susan is trying to explain to Mick why she picked him to father a child with her (because he keeps insisting she tell him), we can see why... he reminds her of her short liaison with Lazar.

    The film is way ahead of its time in exploring mental health... therapies, symptoms, systemic failures. These days there is much more care for PTSD-impacted war veterans, compared to Susan Traherne, who got nothing. Little wonder she's as bereft as she is by the end.

    One of the screenplay's major themes is diplomacy. Every scene swings up and down the diplomatic spectrum. I'd never really noticed how characters like Alice (Tracey Ullman) get away with a huge amount of indelicacy in what they say and do, unlike Susan, who is judged harshly for the same open approach. In the famous dinner party scene, all the characters tip over the edge of poise into rudeness, not just Susan. She's perhaps just more honest about it, not attempting to bury it in tradition or humour.

    I'd love to see the play. Hare's writing is so gutsy. What a shame this film didn't come out in 1984 or 1986, to have had the light shone on it that it deserved!