Monday, January 16, 2006

Friday, April 08, 2005

Pauline Kael

“. . . . Perhaps the most damning thing, the thing that made the penniless and once again pregnant Lindy the most hated woman in Australia, was that her stoic, matter-of-fact manner was not what the public expected. TV had accustomed people to grieving mothers who showed their frailty and their naked pathos, and here was Lindy on TV--distanced, impersonal, and bluntly impatient at the endless dumb questions.Error! Reference source not found.

It's this that makes the role work so well for Meryl Streep. She's a perfectionist who works at her roles from the outside in, mastering the details of movement, voice, and facial expression, and this thinking-it-all-out approach gives her an allofness. Of course, she's got the accent; at least, to American ears she's got it--the flatness, the low pitch, and the combative swing of the phrasing. It seems more fully absorbed than her meticulous accents generally do. And she's devised a plain, inelegant walk for this woman who has no time for self-consciousness, and no thought of it, either. The walk may be overdone: the actual Lindy Chamberlain, when she appeared on "60 Minutes," didn't move this heavily, as if she'd just put down a washboard. And Streep definitely overdoes the coiffure--witchy black hair with the bowl cut you sometimes see on little boys. But Streep's Lindy has a consistency--she's practical and unrefined, with no phony aspirations. And what gives the performance power is that Streep can use her own aloofness and make it work in the character. (Even her lack of spontaneity works for her here, though sometimes she does seem overcontrolled.) Streep has psyched out Lindy Chamberlain and seen that her hardness (unconsciously, perhaps) serves a purpose: it saves a part of her from the quizzing and prying of journalists and lawyers. Lindy, who's scrappy and reacts to fools with comic disbelief, needs her impersonal manner to keep herself intact. (Maybe the professionally gracious and intelligent Streep has learned this from her own sessions with reporters and TV interviewers.) [and critics?] From time to time, Streep suggests the strong emotions that Lindy hides in public, and we feel a bond with her--we feel joined to her privacy.

A Cry is never less than gripping . . . . But A Cry is scaled to be a masterwork, and it isn't that. It's more like an expanded, beautifully made TV Movie of the Week. And partly this is because Streep, remarkable as she is (she does some of her finest screen acting), seems to be playing a person in a documentary. This is also true of the very accomplished Sam Neill. Everything that Schepisi does shows integrity, but he doesn't seem to go down deep enough . . . .

Pauline Kael
date? (same as Good Mother)
Movie Love, pp 30-33

David Ansen

“For one cynical moment, when Meryl Streep first appears in A Cry in the Dark, you may be inclined to giggle. Oh God, what nationality is she this time? An Aussie? But the moment passes. Fast. Before long you may entirely forget you've ever seen this actress before. Wearing a brutal helmet of black hair, carrying herself with th bovine un-self-consciousness of a woman who has never given fasion a moment's thought, speaking with a perfect Australian accent, Streep vanishes magically before our eyes, replaced by the prickly, intransigently unglamorous Lindy Chamberlain--a mother who, when accused of murdering her infant child, became the focus of a lurid media thunderstorm. . . .

Lindy didn't do it. . . . [A]n entire nation of onlookers . . . seemed to find in Lindy Chamberlin an ideal scapegoat for all their worst fears about human nature. . . . [Ansen notes that Lindy's being a Seventh-day Adventist and her appearance of not mourning Azaria were factors in the public's reaction to her.] By the time . . . Lindy [was] brought to trial . . ., she had become the most hated woman in Australia, a modern-day witch.

It's a hair-raising, excrutiating story, made more uncomfortable by the uncompromising artistry of Streep and director Fred Schepisi. How easy it would have bben to turn Lindy into some saintly, put-upon victim of injustice, the sacrificial lamb of numerous TV movies. But though Schepisi's outrage burns bright, he's after tougher game. As in his much misunderstood movie of "Plenty," also with Streep, Schepisi is drawn to difficult, even unlikable heroines, and he makes no attempt to disguise the abrasive, bitter edges of Lindy's personality. Coldness is no sin, but in a world increasingly swayed by television images, Lindy's untelegenic comprotment may be the most damning evidence against her. . . .

David Ansen
Newsweek, November 14, 1988

Stephen Schiff

. . . . Meryl Streep's portrayal of Lindy (which she has called "almost the thing that I'm proudest of") allows her to be chilly and cynical, and even physically repugnant, but it also displays the character's wicked savvy, and Schepisi uses her performance with an unusual kind of integrity. Streep earns our sympathy as the story demands that it be earned--not because Lindy is likable, not because we fall in love with her, but because she's innocent and her conviction by innuendo is monstrous.

Stephen Schiff
"A Cinematic Gallant"
New Yorker, whenever
[more on Schepisi's skill with actors? on Lindy's char (not much not covered)]

Stanley Kauffmann

“A film-world joke every January 1: "Another New Year! I wonder what accent Meryl Streep will give us this year." [?] As a Streep devotee, I like the joke because, in a narrow way, it underlines one of her distinctive aims: transformation. Many a good actor has ranged wide without remarkable vocal or physical transformation--Jane Fonda, for instance; but for Streep, vocal and physical changes are both incentives and aids in her intent to explore herself. Her performances in, say, Sophie's Choice and Silkwood and The French Lieutenant's Woman are the idea in flower. They are not just extensions of the costumer's and cosmetician's craft: they are Streep's connections between her being and some beings that overlap hers.

In most of her films, those noted above and Plenty and Out of Africa and Ironweed, transformation was only the beginning of her work, in many aspects accomplished before the shooting began. But oocasionally, as in Still of the Night, the process didn't go much further because of the role's limits. That is the trouble with A Cry in the Dark. . . .

In the screenplay by Rober Caswell and Fred Schepisi, derived form a book by John Bryson, Lindy is a straitened role. After the bereavement and her subsequent surprise at the accusation of murder, she becomes fairly consistently arrogant, tough, contemptuous of the public and the legal process that has indicted and imprisoned her. To put it practically, as a part for an actress, it's corseted. It's faithful to the original, I guess, but the price is that, once past the pain of the baby's loss, very little about Lindy is moving. Most of the conferences and inquiries, even many of the scenes in which lindy and her husband buck each other up, are not especially interesting. The writers have not solved a tough problem: how to remain accurate without being artistically immobilized. They haven't penetrated the role to provide more than what Lindy Chamberlain actually said and did. What's missing is not invention or distortion but insight. All that Streep can do is give us a skillful facsimile of the actual, generally rather remote woman.

Her accent "this year" is, of course, Australian--so accurate that it's sometimes dense. Wearing a dark wig bound close to her head, she does nothing inauthentic, but her whole performance seems a series of screen tests for the real role--the complex and demanding role--to come. For Streep, this part is a particular misfortune. If there is a gap in her gifts, it's that she lacks immediate, effortless warmth. She is perfectly (and I mean perfectly) capable of summoning whatever emotional currents a role requires, but she is not, as many a lesser actor is, an innately warm and engaging personality. By ill chance the role of Lindy, as written, underscores this lack in Streep and keeps her performance cool--an accomplished peice of work we can watch with admiration but with little empathy.

Sam Neill, as the husband, has a better role. . . .

. . . . Ian Bakker's lighting is very successful with Streep's face, which is not easy to light: here it's a piece of high-cheeked sculpture in a dark helmet.

I've read that some Australian film people were upset because an American was brought in to play Lindy. It's easy to understand that resentment, even without asking whether there's an Australian equivalent of Streep. But the knife twists even further. If we didn't know that Lindy was being played by someone not Australian ("Listen to her!" we keep thinking. "Sho sounds just like the real Australians all around her"), A Cry in the Dark would lose much of whatever effect it does have. It would be just an adequate Australian account of a murder case with not very great intrinsic interest. In fact, the most striking aspect of the film, other than Streep's transformation, is extrinsic, that it was completed before the outcome was known.

Stanley Kauffmann
New Republic, December 5, 1988

David Denby

The Chamberlains were Seventh Day Adventists . . . Though grief-stricken in private, they spoke publicly of accepting God's will and of seeing Azaria at the Second Coming. They were naive [two dots over "i" in "naive"]: Attempting to use the media to explain their faith, they appeared to be boasting of their serenity. Their piety might have been the only way to keep their feelings under control, but the mdeia and the public despised them for not breaking down and crying. . . .

The Chamberlains were victims of media sensationalism and prejudice. But victims or not, they are a strange, dicey pair to put at the center of a movie. To my eyes, at least, they are dim and unappealing. As Lindy, Meryl Streep wears a moplike black wig and witchy eyebrows that arch down toward the bridge of her nose. Streep coarsens her voice and purses her lips. She makes Lindy spiky, sarcastic, perhaps too proud of her lucid habits of mind; Lindy is frightening when she coldly describes on television what a hungry dingo could do to a baby--her baby. Streep, clearly, decided that her integrity lay in making Lindy as difficult to like as possible, and Sam Neill, matching her, gives a performance almost masochistic in its devotion to Michael Chamberlain's mediocrity. . . .

The Chamberlains are people of little imagination, and, if Schepisi is right, they never attained much insight into the sources of the hostility they evoked. This failure doesn't affect their innocence, of course, but I'm not sure that the public's initial distaste for them (later on, they found supporters) was purely an example of prejudice. Putting it brutally, if thse two had ever read or thought about anything but the Bible, they might have found some bette way of speaking and acting after Azalea died. There is something creepy about them. The movie argues that dislikable people deserve tolerance and respect, too, and we register the point, but it's a hollow victory for tolerance. If Schepisi had veen less of a moralist and more of an artist, he would have discovered something else in the Chamberlains--depths in their suffering--and the whole issue of whether we like them would have been beside the point.”

David Denby
New York, November 28, 1988
[underlined parts possible cuts]


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