Joan Plowright shows us the inner reality of her screen characters

June 10, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

To hear the voice is to know why there'll always be an England. It's not one of those regal things, aristocratic and nasal and refined and beautifully modulated. Actually, voices like that are a dime a dozen.

No, what's loose in the great Joan Plowright's tones, under the warm, plummy density of the accent, is a torrent of merriment, a sparkle of spontaneity, a trill of delight; there's a note of conspicuous irony and actual physical pleasure, as if the owner were actively sucking fun from the air even as she spoke. To hear it is to see her witty face, with those bright eyes and that fierce, erect posture, alert, probing, ironic and totally English, in some peculiarly satisfying way. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that she is the widow of one of the greatest actors of the 20th century.

Joan Plowright is obviously well beyond her grief, and into a kind of happiness. Late in a life filled with accomplishment, her career took an odd little detour when Lawrence Kasdan cast her as an Italian mother-in-law in "I Love You to Death," which in turn led her along such entertaining byways as Barry Levinson's "Avalon" and even a brief turn in that most un-British of films, "The Last Action Hero." How far is that from the Old Vic, where she started back in 1963?

Yet another turn was about to hit her and to turn her into something like a world cinema icon, so intense that many would forget that she was Laurence Olivier's widow. That was "Enchanted April," a movie made for pennies that became a worldwide hit.

In it, four British women shared a castle in Italy after World War I, each learning a little something from the others, a kind of proto-sisterhood at a time when no vocabulary of sisterhood existed. She played a flinty paragon of rectitude who knew more about literature than life; but even she, eventually, was melted by the warmth of Italy and the story.

Since then, she's appeared in two similar films, costume dramas with a clever feminist twist. "The Summer House," with Jeanne Moreau, followed; and arriving today is "Widow's Peak." In all, they're very much like the sort of thing that isn't supposed to happen to English actors but only American ones: a narrow, convincing sort of movie persona that's so recognizable and appealing, it's a kind of stardom.

"It happens unseen to oneself," Plowright says of this new fame in a telephone interview from Hollywood. "It's very odd. It has to do with a persona you're playing in film, and nothing with the person you really are."

But she has since refused to take roles that have advanced that particular notion of her. Rather, she does what she likes.

"If the character comes off the page, it's a warm, rich character," says Plowright, of the imposing Mrs. Doyle Counihan. "She's a descendant of classic comedy roles, in which one has had a grounding in the theater. It's the dizziness, the outrageousness of her -- very odd woman, possessive, and yet she loves her son."

It's Plowright's gift to find the humanity behind the flinty exterior of her matronly mandarins that give her roles such a complex and contrary reality. Mrs. Doyle Counihan, for example, literally runs the Irish town of Kilshannon (the time is the early '20s, just like that of "Enchanted April") with, as they used to say of Queen Victoria, a velvet glove covering a steel fist.

At first, Mrs. Doyle Counihan seems the very embodiment of propriety and good sense; only gradually do we begin to understand that her rectitude has a nearly pathological dimension. Yet even as her villainy becomes clearer, Plowright is showing us her human weaknesses and foibles. It's a marvelous balancing act.

"It's interesting to find real things about a character," Plowright says. "She has very harsh views on things, but she's not truly evil."

The movie -- not to make it seem too grim -- is also a larky imitation of an Agatha Christie novel, complete to dazzling reversals and twists.

"We all agreed that the twist and turns had to be played with serious reality behind them if it was to work," she recalls.

The piece itself has a curious origin. It was originally written 10 years ago by the Irish playwright Hugh Leonard, after meeting Irish-born American movie star Maureen O'Sullivan at a New York party, when the two realized they had been born in Irish villages but a few miles apart.

The manuscript drifted through the film industry for nearly seven years, until finally producer Jo Manuel came across it and resolved to make it. By that time, O'Sullivan was too old for the role and her daughter, Mia Farrow, became involved in the project. But still it took more time to get it made.

"I heard about it when it reached Jo's hands and read it in its present form. Mia and I had been trying to get together for years," Plowright says. "We would ring each other up to check on its progress. It took three years to get together, but by the time we finally got together, we were raring to go!"

Ironically, Plowright says, "The success of 'Enchanted April' may have had a lot to do with it.

"It was very helpful. It had witty dialogue and good women's parts and it showed that there was a vast audience for such a film. But of course when we were making it, we never knew it would be such a success. We all loved it, of course, and it was so happy to find that the world agreed with us."

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