There is a magisterial daring afoot in "Plenty," the daring of a movie that is cold, often hard to watch, that achieves its effects through nuance and distant connections. You resent it for the work it makes you do, and recognize it by the rules it breaks -- you recognize it as greatness.

Adapted by David Hare from his off-Broadway play, "Plenty" traces the story of Susan (Meryl Streep) as she goes from British intelligence operative assigned to the French resistance to "working girl" in a rotting empire, from the intensity of the war's hit-and-run liaisons to the airless trap of a loveless marriage.

Her lover and later husband, Raymond (Charles Dance), crawls his way through the hierarchy of the foreign service, where the upper lips are as stiff as vault doors (Sir John Gielgud and Ian McKellen play two of his superiors). Mortared in this grey bureaucracy, Raymond sees Susan, with her Bohemian pals (Tracey Ullman and Sting), as Mata Hari and Gertrude Stein rolled in one.

He can talk about books with her, go jazz-clubbing with her, but most of all, he can save her -- which, for an overaged choirboy like Raymond, is the greatest romance of all. For Susan, you see, is a nut, a hysteric given to torrential insults, sporadic gunplay and the tearing of wallpaper. The greatest virtue of "Plenty," in this light, is that it is antipsychological. Delayed battle fatigue? Career frustration? Just plain crazy? "Plenty" builds lots of explanations for Susan's behavior into the story; and for "Plenty," none will do.

Unlike "Sophie's Choice," which accounted for its protagonist's angst with a single, scarring event hyperbolically revealed, "Plenty" refuses to see Susan simply as the prisoner of her experience. Her relation to history, to the war and the way it aerated (and in that way destroyed) the nasty peculiarites of British social life, is built of resonances, obliquities. Even her brief affair with a British spy during the war -- what might have been "The Night That Haunts Her" -- is insinuated by Hare and director Fred Schepisi with fastidious delicacy. It's social commentary as chiaroscuro.

As a result, Susan becomes both an individual, irreducibly particular, and an open-ended symbol of the Britain of that era -- not a product of her society, but an emblem encompassing it. Streep plays her that way, a dubious heroine but a heroine nonetheless, vibrant and destructive as a high-tension wire dancing in the street. Her work here has all the meticulous detail of her other performances -- she captures not just the accent of the English but the cadences and timbre, the tossed-off dryness and occasional pell-mell rush of words, the harpyish shrieking of a Brit in a dither.

For the first time, though, she's really able to breathe, to luxuriate in her own vivid presence -- it's the combination of craft and instinct that only a handful of film actors have achieved. The complaint against Streep has always been that you could see her working; in "Plenty," the work is there, but the stitches are hidden. And it's by far her sexiest performance -- her sharp features softened (Schepisi photographs her lovingly), loose-limbed and leggy, she might be the man-eater in some '40s film noir. Who thought you could ever call Meryl Streep a force of nature? She makes "Plenty" into the tragedy of a woman who is, simply by dint of her desire, larger than life, cast in a nation that was, by the time of the Suez debacle (which provides the movie's climax), rather smaller; and at the same time, the tragedy of a nonentity who believes life owes her more than it actually does. She'd make a great Hedda Gabler.

Fans of Streep's tic-ridden, shamelessly manipulative performance in "Sophie's Choice" will be disappointed -- she's not simply a victim here, but a creator of victims, and the fact that the poor sods she destroys seem to deserve it (they're prigs and nincompoops) hardly makes her sympathetic. In a way, she's revising that earlier role, digging deeper into the character of a woman crippled by the war, just as "Plenty," as a whole, is an antidote to "Sophie's Choice" -- the movie that art-directed the Holocaust.

The antidote lies in the way everything about "Plenty" (except for the ridiculous Golden Ending) is calculated to distance you emotionally from it. Schepisi (and his cinematographer, Ian Baker) have shot the movie in real light, which tends to make it hard on the eyes -- the opening sequence, a parachute drop at night, leaves you straining to make things out, and the later scenes have a hard, fluorescent glare. Schepisi has composed the movie mostly with long shots, which literally keep you at arm's length; the staging is deliberately artificial -- archways provide the frame with its proscenium, and Gielgud, particularly, exits as if he's off to the coffee truck. The effect is to keep things intellectual, to seal off your heart.

The rational chill of the movie is wedded to what it's about -- good manners are part of what drives Susan mad -- so the characters swim easily through it. McKellen, his blue eyes hard as sapphires, is one of the scariest screen presences in memory -- he's the aristocrat-as-psychopath, who'd kill readily, but without pleasure. As Raymond, Dance's nose isn't runny, but it ought to be; there's an unhealthy suggestion of flaccidity about him, as if all his exercise and punctilious grooming never helped, and it makes his kindnesses seem phony -- what's kindness without warmth? Sting, swinging through his Cockney accent, plays an engaging cement-head, but a cement-head nonetheless.

There are two characters you'd like to spend any time with, and, in one of the movie's small niceties, they cancel each other out. Gielgud, as Ambassador Darwin, moves with the slinky ease of Marlene Dietrich, and his seigneurial timing bolsters the movie's best comic lines; he seems like a dope, but he proves, during Suez, that he's got the right stuff. He's the best of old England. Ullman, a minx with a bony forehead and saucy, darting black eyes, lights up the screen like a dance hall's mirror ball; she's new England. Because both are equally lovable, neither is important to the thematic structure of the movie.

Just as Gielgud provides a splendid foil to Dance -- he includes all his bad qualities, and redeems them -- Ullman highlights Streep. Both are full of life, but Streep is full of death, too; both are promiscuous, but Susan's sexual encounters sour with a clinging desperation. You see sex in "Plenty," and immediately you imagine the morning after -- it comes from the perspective of ashtrays to be emptied, through the film of a half-filled highball glass. The penultimate image, of Streep collapsed on a hotel bed, legs splayed, passed out on dope, grimly replaying her wartime romance, is a horrible one -- and the true ending to this classic character study of a woman and a nation.