Film: The State As Traitor

Plenty. Written by David Hare. Directed by Fred Schepisi. 20th Century Fox.

There are traitors and then there are traitors. Some people sell state secrets and wind up in prison or in comfortable dachas a few versts outside Moscow. Others play false with clients, friends or lovers, and end their days in lonely places screaming at sycophants or at walls. And the state can betray, too, or at least so neglect the needs and talents of potential patriots that betrayal is brewed out of waste. The film Plenty, a vivid and varied entertainment, tries to deal with the later sort of treason. Playwright David Hare points the accusing finger at post-World War II Britain. The indictment doesn’t quite stick, but some peripheral excitement is generated as the prosecution tries to make its case.

Plenty begins and ends with images of breathless expectation, while the body of the film shows that all expectations will be confounded. In the first scene, played in the hush and dark of pre-dawn, several French Resistance fighters and a seventeen year old female British courier scan the sky from which supplies are to be parachuted down. Down come the supplies and a British agent, code name Lazar, several miles off the mark. The descent of the spy and the buckling and snapping of canvas as Lazar gathers his parachute fill the screen and sound track, just as the haste and secrecy of the whole operation fill the imagination of the frightened and enraptured courier, Susan Traherne, who must take charge of the agent and guide him to the village of his assignment. How can a seventeen year old, living under the shadow of death in a foreign, enslaved land, resist a man who drops from the sky like a god; who is handsome and sympathetic and just as scared as she; who speaks the language she hasn’t heard for months; who can only tell her his code name; and who will soon vanish into even greater danger than she has undergone? She can’t resist, of course, and, too frightened of the Gestapo and too greedy for contact to remove all their clothes, they make love at the village’s inn, while outside a mackerel sky disperses the darkness. Soon, she watches Lazar narrowly elude the Nazis and bicycle out of her life, leaving her his cufflinks as a memento.

This experience exalts Susan Traherne and helps to ruin the rest of her life. As she later explains to her suitor, the young diplomat Brock: “I was seventeen and I was thrown into the war. I often think of it… the most unlikely people. People I met only for an hour or two. Astonishing kindnesses. Bravery. The fact you could meet someone for an hour or two and see the very best of them and then move on.”

War can be a romantic’s psychic helium, rather like hang-gliding over a boiling sea, o’ertopping one chopping wave after another and never experiencing a calm. But afterwards civilian life may come to seem one long period of calm. What does Susan, who confesses that “I like to lose control,” do for peacetime thrills? She takes a boring job in a shipping office. She entertains a diplomat suitor. She drops the suitor, then the job. She gets on Queen Elizabeth’s coronation committee and tries to conceive a child by a working-class lover. The pregnancy never happens and Susan goes into advertising. She has a breakdown, has a wedding (to the diplomat), has some valium, has a run-in with her husband’s boss, has another breakdown, leaves her husband, and then….

Then, in the early sixties, she is reunited with her wartime lover, Lazar. They take a room at a seaside hotel, but Susan is only interested in refreshing a dream, not breaking through to a new reality. Fruitless longing has been her specialty for twenty years and she’s not about to stop now. As Hemingway’s heroes consume their leftover lives in the pursuit of physical danger, Susan has been using up hers by abusing her nervous system. She risks her sanity rather than her life. Now she tells her lover, another post-war emotional basket case, “I want to believe in you. So tell me nothing. That’s best.” She drifts into marijuana-induced sleep and asks her lover to “Kiss me. Kiss me as I go.” And go she does — into a dream-memory of the first day of the liberation of France, when she had climbed a hill to watch a village below celebrating, and had told a farmer, “Things will quickly change. We have grown up. We will improve our world.” And as the thirty-seven year old Susan sinks into druggy anomie, the nineteen year old Susan smiles radiantly in close-up and proclaims, “there will be days and days and days like this.”

As a portrait of a woman who has peaked too early and must regard the rest of her life as anti-climax, Plenty is a valid, touching work. But the script’s author, David Hare, is shooting for something larger: “I also had the wider aim of trying to set one character’s life against the days of English plenty.” By “plenty” Hare means materialism rampant and stifling. By showing Susan’s decline in parallel to the declining international fortunes of Britain, especially the Suez debacle, and showing her worst breakdown precipitated by a rough encounter with the head of the diplomatic corps, Hafe attempts to link personal decay with national bankruptcy, even attributing the former to the latter. Using Susan as a paradigm, Hare accuses Britain of wasting the talents of the very citizens who served most nobly in the war against fascism.

For me, some questions arise. What national policy could assuage Susan’s longings? Suppose the Suez invasion had been entirely honorable, a mission of rescue, say, rather than an enactment of imperialistic design. It might have given Susan a momentary surge of pride, but would jobs at shipping offices be any less boring? Would the descent from D-Day to dog food advertisements be any less steep? Can the urge to lose control be mitigated by the ship of state changing course? It might be argued that national altruism would justify the promises of the Allied victory and thus spiritually fortify an idealistic citizen, but would such fortification stand through the remainder of a relatively uneventful life?

Hare has also written, “I intend to show the struggle of a heroine against a deceitful and emotionally stultified class, yet some sections of the English audience miss this, for they see what Susan is up against as life itself.” Oh, those stolid Brits! So lacking of dreams of what could be, so smugly bounded by the sight of what merely is. Yet how exactly does Susan “struggle”? During the Suez crisis, she berates a roomful of foreign service guests about national folly. The guests, of course, merely listen in embarrassed silence and carry her words no further than the foyer. A bird that beats its wings against a drawing room’s walls and never even seeks the nearest window is a pretty tame bird indeed. During the Watergate follies, Martha Mitchell, another frenzied wife of a public servant, risked commitment proceedings (possibly) and public derision (certainly) in order to tell the truth to the public about what she considered a national disgrace. Martha was at least as nerve-jangled as Susan, but Martha struggled to get through with her little bit of the truth. Susan can only move on. Getting through is so much more dramatic than moving on. And if a government tries to thwart or punish a person who acts on behalf of his fellow citizens, then the government’s corruption is truly exposed. Hare himself seems aware of this since he contrasts Susan with the elderly diplomat, Darwin, superbly played by John Gielgud, who raises sarcastic repartee to the level of Olympian scorn. Darwin resigns in protest against government mendacity. But Darwin is just a supporting character who only dominates two scenes. When Gielgud stalks grandly off the screen midway through the story, he seems to be literally walking away with the movie.

Perhaps director Fred Schepisi, though obviously interested enough in Hare’s script to film it, felt as I did about its political impertinence. For he has magnified the meaning of Susan’s initial encounter with Lazar, transforming what in the play was just an instance of the war’s perilous intimacy into a memory of perfect love that overshadows reality. In the play, Lazar and Susan don’t make love; she merely cries on his shoulder. Nor does he leave her the cufflinks. By making their encounter a sexual act and by showing Susan treasuring the cufflinks throughout her life, Schepisi brings Plenty closer in tone to that old WW II sudser, Waterloo Bridge (Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh keep missing each other by millimeters as bombs fall on London) than to the social protest Hare certainly intended. Schepisi goes further; when Susan tries to conceive a child by a working-class youth, she says it’s because the men in her own sphere are too timid and conventional: “…[W]ith them I usually feel I’m holding myself in for fear of literally blowing them out of the room.” But Schepisi gives Hurricane Susan the lie by casting as the prole the rock singer Sting, who strikingly resembles Sam Neill (of Sidney Riley fame), who plays Lazar. Furthermore, she embraces both men under the same mackerel sky, This love story aspect works on its own terms but further undercuts Hare’s indictment of his country. For star-crossed lovers know neither temporal nor geographical boundaries.

As Susan, Meryl Streep gives a performance that is nine parts great acting and one part salesmanship of her own undeniable charm. At times, she seems almost as concerned with her appearance as with the emotions of her character. Susan is chic, to be sure, but I kept getting the impression of an actress’s fashionableness rather than that of a specific person. In her last encounter with Lazar, Streep really is magnificent. She makes Susan appear so hollowed out by despair that her body threatens to float up from the bed. She has become a wraith of self-destruction. In response, Sam Neill delicately sketches a man capable of realizing what he has become in this woman’s mind, but who also knows that he can’t embody the symbol she has turned him into.

There are many sorts of betrayal. Schepisi and company may have watered down a social indictment in order to achieve the simpler love story residing in that indictment. Those who feel that the indictment wouldn’t stick anyway won’t feel betrayed by Schepisi’s subtle, skillful distortion.

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

tagged as: English order state WW II

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