As Meryl continues to rack up awards and accolades, winning her third Academy Award for The Iron Lady and being nominated again for Osage: August County, one might assume she would stick to appearing in movies as the lead, and only the lead; after all, most people think of Meryl as a leading lady and not a supporting one. Despite winning the Supporting Actress Oscar for Kramer Vs. Kramer back in 1980, Meryl often plays the main female character in films like in Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, The Bridges of Madison County, and The Devil Wears Prada. Especially after the weirdly anticlimactic year of 2007, which brought audiences three underwhelming dramas with Meryl in lame supporting roles, it seemed likely that she would stick to lead characters. And she did—Mamma Mia, Doubt, Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated, The Iron Lady, Hope Springs, August: Osage County. All successful films, many of them highly acclaimed awards contenders.
And yet, Meryl is anything but predictable, which she proved yet again in 2014, when she gave us supporting turns in not one, not two, but three new movies, just like in 2007. She plays a cameo role in Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman, and The Witch in Rob Marshall’s musical epic Into the Woods. First up in the year, however, was the adaptation of Lois Lowry’s beloved 1993 novel, which features Jeff Bridges in the title role, cute-as-a-button Brenton Thwaites as the main character Jonas, and Meryl in an icy turn as the Chief Elder, who runs a utopian community that has taken pain and anger away from its inhabitants and in turn ripped everyone of their emotions. At a heavily attended youth ceremony, one eerily similar to the one that opens the similarly themed Divergent, Jonas is picked to be the Receiver of Memory, a person who spends time with the Giver to receive past memories. When Jonas learns about what people’s lives were like before the society became so bland—and black and white—he turns against the system.
Bridges had been trying to make this novel into a movie for twenty years. In 1994 he famously attempted to get a movie made that featured his father Lloyd Bridges in the title role, and his name had been tied to the project ever since. It seemed like it would never get off the ground, but then came the popularity of young adult adaptations—everything from Twilight to The Hunger Games to the aforementioned Divergent. When studio executives finally saw the potential they had with The Giver’s story, the project was greenlit, although with some required changes: Jonas’s age was bumped up from 11 to 16, there would be more action than the book, and the role of Chief Elder would be significantly beefed up for the adaptation (at least the effective black-and-white element of the novel carried over to the screen). Lowry herself was dumbfounded when Meryl signed on to play a part that had very little time and weight in the book, and only later learned that the role had been expanded for the movie. Good for all involved, given that Meryl’s chilling performance is one of the few memorable elements of a mostly dull and uninvolving production.
If Bridges had gotten the chance to direct his adaptation in the ‘90s, the result probably would have been more pure and faithful to Lowry’s book. Unfortunately, the 2014 version was made after the young adult revolution, so too much in it, from the ceremony scene, to the high-tech action, to the unnecessary teen romance, feel familiar and false; it’s especially sad given that the book came out more than a decade before any of the others before mentioned. For those who aren’t familiar with Lowry’s novel, this movie will feel like been-there-done-that, which is a shame. But even if one hadn’t seen the other young adult adaptations, this film feels pedestrian all the way through, with a lack of energy throughout, an anticlimactic ending, and two weird casting choices that are distracting. Katie Holmes plays Jonas’s mother, who is so much of a stiff, endlessly saying things like “Precision of language,” that the role brings her short period of Scientology worship to mind. Also, Taylor Swift pops up for a couple of insignificant scenes that add no emotion or depth to the story, and she looks so unlike herself that it begs the question of why she is a part of this.
On the positive side, most of the other actors do a fine job, especially Bridges in the title role. It took so long for the movie to be made that he became old enough to take the part he had originally envisioned for his father, and he is quietly effective as the Giver, with his scarred psyche and husky voice. Thwaites, who broke out in 2014 with roles in The Signal and Malificent, is likable as Jonas, with a boyish face that makes the character appear even younger than he is, and Cameron Monaghan, so great on Shameless, has a couple of exciting scenes with Thwaites, as the best friend who turns on him. Lastly, Meryl does what she can as Chief Elder, starting with giving her a long gray bob that is one of her most unflattering haircuts in all her decades of moviemaking, but it must be noted that this is her most insignificant role in a movie since she played Corrine Whitman in 2007’s Rendition. At least a third of the movie she appears as a hologram, and at least another third she spends her time behind a giant throne, looking down on the others as if she’s some kind of God.
When asked in interviews why she agreed to be in the movie, Meryl said that she likes to play boss—she is the mother of four kids, after all—and that throughout her entire career she had always wanted to work with Bridges. He had been in talks for the Tommy Lee Jones role in Hope Springs a few years back, and so she latched onto the opportunity to work with one of the greats; it’s of course their few select scenes together that give the film the most tension. When she whispers to the Giver about an unfortunate incident that happened to his former Receiver of Memory, there’s an immediate sense of history between them, and when she completes a hologram message to him later in the narrative and says, “He’s lying,” the deception felt in her character cuts deeply. She has a little bit here and there throughout the rest of the film, but it’s her last scene, where she explains to the Giver how important it is not to revert back to the way the world used to be, that is Meryl’s best in the film, one that finally shows the character’s vulnerability, and her strict desire for no more change. While the film only works halfheartedly, Meryl does what she can with this underutilized villainous role, similar to one the equally brilliant Kate Winslet downsized her talent for in Divergent, but thankfully, Meryl would return as another, more complex villain in a better movie a few months following The Giver’s release—yes, Into the Woods was on its way.