In this quiet hiatus before the autumn blockbusters begin to be lobbed at us, it would seem a very good time to play catch-up at the movies. Rummage through half a dozen films and you can find some wonderfully satisfying moments. Not all of them are performances--there are music and set designs in a pair of films that alone make them collectable.
There's a buzz these days about the great roles for women. You hear about the "Agnes of God" trio, there is plenty of talk about "Plenty" (which actually has a major and a minor contribution--not only Streep's luminosity but Tracey Ullmann's singular, fey presence), or Jessica Lange's vibrant Patsy Cline in "Sweet Dreams," or Sissy Spacek's plucky "Marie" or that odd current double-header of Glenn Close's, the relentlessly madcap "Maxie" and the gripping-but-specious "Jagged Edge."
These are the day's high-profile performances, saluted by heavy publicity artillery. Some are unreservedly fine; Spacek and Close are still a lot better than the vehicles they enhance.
But the cheerful news (via previews) is that these are not the last of the year's strong roles for women. Very shortly we will have Kate Nelligan as Eleni, a Greek mother in the turbulent political period of the 1950s whose passion for her children makes her the equal of the mothers of El Salvador or Chile today; and Laura Dern, half of a shiveringly fine duet (with Treat Williams) in an adaptation of a Joyce Carol Oates short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," now called "Smooth Talk."
But have you seen Miranda Richardson's mesmerizing portrait of Ruth Ellis, the white-blonde '50s "hostess" of "Dance With a Stranger"? No talk about the year's bravura acting is complete without her name, in a debut that is a revelation. Director Mike Newell and writer Shelagh Delaney have caught the desperation, the deceits and self-delusions of loveless love from the inside out, but it is Richardson who gives us Ellis' soul. She was trapped two ways, by the rigidity of Britain's class system as well as by her passion for a handsome young upper-class weakling, and Richardson's portrayal of that desperation is delicately feral.
Or have you see Fionnula Flanagan in "James Joyce's Women"? Wrapped in tattered lace, reclining indolently on satin pillows like an auburn-haired Irish naked Maja, she puts Goya to shame and does Joyce proud. Her portrayal of a half-dozen women from the life and the imagination of the great Dubliner is like a delicate thunderbolt. She is Nora Barnacle, the woman to whom Joyce unlocked his most secret thoughts, a wife he wished to find virginal one moment, "shameless, insolent and obscene" the next. Nora, the chambermaid, who never read her husband's words and said she never understood them; his bulwark, his inspiration, source of his deepest vexation and his love until he died.
Flanagan is the ruminating Molly Bloom, deep, dark and ample--words Joyce used to describe the River Liffey, which apply to the magnificent Molly as well. She is a honey-tongued, chapped-cheeked Dublin washerwoman, slip-slapping her clothes, waist deep in the river, and the tart American intellectual Sylvia Beach, who persevered to get "Ulysses" published.
It is a performance both passionate and intelligent, or perhaps intelligently passionate; Flanagan, who wrote, adapted and produced the film, gives weight, warmth and understanding to this demoniacally difficult author and gives him wings at the same time. And by keeping her focus primarily on the women who orbited his life, Flanagan may also create a demand for Joyce biographies at neighborhood libraries; you leave "James Joyce's Women" with a real hunger to know more about this shadowy, opinionated genius.
"Mishima" was perhaps always a doomed project, but you can't help but admire its makers, in much the same way you admire those obsessive teams who throw themselves upon the slopes of Mt. Everest. Mishima's was a dark and violent life, not easily contained in any form, and it would be crazy to say that Paul Schrader has illuminated it well enough here to be even understandable. Yet the stylized sets of Eiko Ishioka, which illustrate the three excerpts from his novels, might be reason enough to see the film. They're sensual, startling, richly inventive: All you can think of when you see them is how Mishima himself would have reveled in her theatricality. (And for Philip Glass devotees, he has contributed a hypnotic and particularly apt musical score.)
Finally, there's the all-stops-out sound of Patsy Cline, another country to be heard from at the movies today. Cline had a voice that perhaps only Judy Garland equaled in the emotion she could pull from a song. In "Sweet Dreams," in addition to watching lust wax and wane between Jessica Lange and Ed Harris, we can hear Cline's own great, vibrant voice. A nice side effect of the movie is that her records are on the radio again almost around the clock. She didn't have much of a life, poor thing, but Lange lights into it, and particularly into the body English of her songs, with a commanding joy and energy that's infectious.