There are a few occasions where the stars align just right for a movie: a cast to die for (Meryl Streep, Ian McKellen, Charles Dance, John Gielgud), a screenplay based on a popular play (adapted by David Hare himself from his 1978 hit), and a period piece weighted to explore character rather than plot. Sometimes though, despite the favourable auspices, the end result is a disappointing mess. So it proves with Plenty, the 1985 British film that attracted Meryl Streep to a starring role just as she hit the meteoric heights in which she still orbits (Out of Africa was released the same year).
Streep plays Susan Traherne, a young Englishwoman and freedom fighter who starts the film in Nazi-occupied France on the side of the Resistance. A one-night stand with Lazar (Sam Neill), a soldier from the Allies who parachutes into France, is an event Susan struggles to get over. Despite her initial optimism at the end of the war, she goes on to marry a rich but uninteresting diplomat (Charles Dance) and to make life hell for him and everyone else who becomes close to her. The action plays out over the course of twenty years, and the plot is decidedly vague. Meryl Streep gives an impeccably-observed performance as a neurotic, possibly mentally unbalanced woman; but what her character wants is as obscure as the title of the piece. That’s the point of the character: but it gives the audience no through line to follow – a move that fatally undermines any real impact the story otherwise might have.
Against Streep, Charles Dance is intensely dull. Whilst the stuffy diplomat he’s playing is a straight-laced character by comparison, it’s Dance’s job to make him interesting. His failure to do so is one of the reasons there are few sympathetic characters in the movie. John Gielgud is excellent as the kind older diplomat Darwin, who resigns from his post over British foreign policy concerning Suez: but that’s just another subplot that comes to nothing. Still, Gielgud has an amusing confrontation with Burt Kwouk. Ian McKellen makes the most of his one scene as a senior diplomat; whilst both Tracey Ullman and Sting prove why it’s a bad idea to cast non-actors in character parts. Ullman is passable. Sting is woeful.
The woolly story isn’t helped by bland, lethargic direction from Fred Schepisi, an also-ran director (the lamentable Fierce Creatures is an indication of his failure to inspire or bring a story to life). Scenes that go nowhere very fast are stretched out beyond reasonable endurance. This isn’t a call for everything to be directed like a music video or an action movie: but if you’re going to craft a film around long, slow scenes, it’s a good idea for them to go somewhere, to be about something, and to offer reversals that provide insight into character.
Is Plenty trying to say something about the false promise of prosperity for all after WWII? Is it trying to say something about mental illness? It touches on both without coming to any decisions. It’s not even a very interesting study of self-destruction. By the end of the movie, Streep and Neill are reunited in a dingy seaside bed and breakfast. At first it’s difficult to tell if it’s meant to be a flashback since neither actor looks older, yet this is meant to be two decades later. It’s telling that such an issue is even noticeable, which it probably wouldn’t be given an engrossing story. It sticks out like a sore thumb because Plenty is a tedious, windy film that says not a lot about even less.
Plenty may well be a marmite movie: but it left us cold. One for Meryl Streep aficionados.
Plenty is released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Network’s The British Film collection.