The heroine of David Hare’s Plenty, Susan Traherne (Meryl Streep), is an extremely successful modern woman living an affluent life in postwar Britain. But Susan is haunted by her youthful ideals and the memory of her work as a Resistance fighter in France. She talks about the war as though it were a lost love, the only thing she sentimentalizes: “You’d meet someone for an hour or two and see the very best of them.” One encounter particularly obsesses her: a courier (Sam Neill) who parachuted into a small French village, made love to her and then departed. He left her his cufflinks, and she still keeps them in her purse. In the materialist atmosphere of England after the war, Susan feels a traitor to her values. In fact, she is so alienated that her condition numbs the viewer.
The director, Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith), is not entirely to blame. Hare, who adapted his play for the screen, offers his heroine no chance for reprieve. And unlike the play, the film unfolds chronologically—25 years of watching a privileged woman grow more desperately empty. Susan Traherne is not lonely, having a good friend in Alice (Tracey Ullman) and an
attentive lover in Raymond (Charles Dance), a kind but ineffectual diplomat. She succeeds at everything she puts her bright mind to; she thoroughly controls every aspect of her life. Yet she cannot banish the thought from her mind that she has lost her ideals. Rejecting “a sad and decorous marriage” to Raymond, she chooses a simple and seemingly independent young man from the lower classes to make her pregnant. When she cannot conceive, she is angered, doubly
so because Mick (Sting) has had the nerve to fall in love with her. Her lapse of control pushes her over the edge and into a nervous breakdown, and eventually she has to enter an institution.
In fact, Susan is not so much a character or a dramatic metaphor as a clinical case of mental illness. Hare provides no background about Susan’s life before her late teens in the Resistance and, as Streep plays her, she seems emotionally unstable even in those glory days. Susan is written as a domineering
woman, but Streep cannot convey the strength of character she needs to dominate. When the long-suffering Raymond rescues her from the hospital and marries her, Streep raises Susan’s complaints to an even shriller note until she falls apart again during a dinner party. Even had Streep’s performance been more appropriate, the movie would still have been the portrait of an incomprehensibly tiresome woman.
Plenty does have its compensations.
The rest of the actors are first rate, with one sparkling gem: John Gielgud as an ambassador whose drab and apparently hypocritical exterior hides a sarcastic but deeply caring man. Bruce Smeaton’s poignant score and the ravishing quality of sunlight which cinematographer Ian Baker has captured are also there to admire. But undermining those pleasures is Susan’s relentless pursuit of pain. The moral of Plenty seems to be that misery loves company—and gets it.
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