Thursday, May 21, 2020

Classic Movie Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) 
Directed by: Karel Reisz.
Written by: Harold Pinter based on the novel by John Fowles.
Starring: Meryl Streep (Sarah and Anna), Jeremy Irons (Charles and Mike), Hilton McRae (Sam), Emily Morgan (Mary), Charlotte Mitchell (Mrs. Tranter), Lynsey Baxter (Ernestina), Peter Vaughan (Mr. Freeman), Colin Jeavons (Vicar), Liz Smith (Mrs. Fairley), Patience Collier (Mrs. Poulteney),Leo McKern (Dr. Grogan), Edward Duke (Nathaniel), Richard Griffiths (Sir Tom), Michael Elwyn (Montague), Toni Palmer (Mrs. Endicott), Cecily Hobbs (Betty Anne), David Warner (Murphy), Alun Armstrong (Grimes), Gérard Falconetti (Davide), Penelope Wilton (Sonia), Joanna Joseph (Lizzie), Orlando Fraser (Tom Elliott).
Before Karel Reisz made The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981, most thought that John Fowles celebrated 1969 novel was unadaptable. Fowles strategy was to tell a Victorian romance, but with a post-modern take – so the reader is aware of the time in which the book was written, and that then you are viewing this story through a modern day’s lens. The novel also made multiple endings – with no real way of telling which is the “real” ending. These are strategies that can work on the page, but on film, a much more literal medium, it nearly impossible to pull off. What Reisz, and screenwriter Harold Pinter, come up with though is a way to achieve the same thing, by different means. They are no longer telling one story, but two. The first is the plot of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the Victoria romance between marked woman Sarah (Meryl Streep), and scientist Charles (Jeremy Irons), who sets about to “rescue” Sarah, and in a way does, just not in the way he thinks. The second is the modern story of Anna and Mike (Streep and Irons again), who are actors, playing Sarah and Charles, and having an onset affair. They are similar love stories in that in both, Irons doesn’t realize what Streep is really up to until the final moments. But they are different as well – as in the modern story, Streep doesn’t need rescuing.
For a movie like this to work, the performances are key – and it’s hard to think of two better ones than the ones Streep and Irons gives. This was Streep’s first lead role in a movie – she had already won the Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) (not to mention her other great performances in films ranging from The Deer Hunter to Manhattan), and Irons was essentially an unknown. But Reisz knew he had cast the roles correctly, and trusted them both with a lot of heavy lifting – especially considering how much is left unsaid.
From a technical standpoint, The French Lieutenant’s Woman has all the trappings of a finely wrought Victorian romance – with impeccable art direction by Assheton Gorton and Ann Mollo, brilliant costumes by Tom Rand, a wonderful romantic score by Carl Davis, and striking cinematography by the great Freddie Francis. The editing by Tom Rand is key as well – cutting back and forth between the two stories that highlight the ways they are similar – and different. We spend the majority of the time with the Victorian romance however – and this is the correct choice. It is a story in which emotions and truths are buried, lives are ruined, love and lust are dangerous things. The modern story, by deliberate contrast, is much lower key – it’s simply two people, both of whom are married, having an affair to pass the time on a movie set, when they are away from their spouses. What connects them is the seriousness with which the Irons characters take them – and how the Streep character uses him.
In the Victorian story, Charles sees himself as some sort of heroic rescuer of Sarah. When we meet him, he is getting engaged to another woman – but when he sees Sarah out walking in a storm – he is drawn to her. He will be drawn to her again and again, as she walks in the woods. Everyone in town already knows Sarah’s story – she was used and abandoned by a French Lieutenant, who washed up injured, and eventually recovered and left. Sarah tells the story herself – how she pursued him, even after he left, how she knows he will never return – but how she can never leave. Charles falls for her – hard – and basically throws his good name, his fortune, his life away to “save” her. It only becomes clear later what she was really doing – and perhaps it never becomes an absolute.
This truly is one of Streep’s finest performances. The most Oscar nominated actor in history, Streep is often terrific in not so great movies – a function of the very basic fact that Hollywood doesn’t seem to know how to build great movies around female characters, and the other fact that Streep can sometimes suck all the oxygen out of a movie for herself – making those around her seem foolish (see her amazing performances in The Devil Wears Prada or Julie and Julia for examples). Here, though, Streep is remarkably subtle – something she rarely is anymore – in playing these dual roles. In both roles, she tells the Irons character precisely what she needs him to hear, and nothing more. She is playing him, and he willingly plays along. It’s understandable in the Victorian story – what other choice does she have, as her only other option may well to become a prostitute in London, her whole town already regarding her as a whore. Irons, who made quite a career for himself in strangely erotic movies after this, ranging from Dead Ringers to Damage to Lolita, which are all perverse in one way or another, just goes along, willingly being suck deeper and deeper into her games.
There is perhaps, something a little too intellectual about the film version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman – in that it does feel so calculated, so much like an intellectual exercise, where everything is so layered with meaning, and double meanings, that perhaps the film is bit too calculating for its own good. But I’m not sure if there was another woman to make a film like this – to show the traps that women fell into in the Victorian era, if they didn’t want to play the few roles society let them, and how those echo into today. Yes, the film is very calculated – and at times is a touch too cold. Then again, that is probably as it should be.

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