French Lieutenant’s Woman: Love in Two Eras

SHE WAS LOST FROM THE MOMENT SHE SAW HIM. 

The original novel by John Fowles was published in 1969 and became a critical darling, portraying a complicated romance between a gentleman and a woman of ill repute. The novel showed the author’s great knowledge of Victorian literature, which made it easy for him to have a little fun with those conventions. ”The French Lieutenant’s Woman” is told through the perspective of a modern narrator, allowing Fowles to take a step back and consider the whole genre of period novels. The process of turning the book into a movie took years, but when the pieces finally began to assemble a decision was made to take the postmodern nature of Fowles’s work and give it a twist. A second period was invented.

The adaptation consists of two romances. First of all, we have the one from the novel, which introduces us to a gentleman called Charles Henry Smithson (Jeremy Irons) who’s engaged to marry Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter). When visiting her in Lyme Regis, he spots a woman standing at the edge of the Cobb, the town’s famous harbor wall. Sensing that she could be in danger because of the rough weather, he runs to her, but she seems startled by his presence. The woman is Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep) who once had an unfortunate romance with a French lieutenant and is now considered an outcast in the strictly conservative town.

The second romance is between Mike and Anna (Irons, Streep) in modern times, two actors hired to play Charles and Sarah in a screen adaptation of ”The French Lieutenant’s Woman”. Even though they both are in relationships, they are attracted to each other…

Told in parallel fashion
A supremely clever idea to balance these two affairs, which are told in parallel fashion, offering a striking difference between the rigid conventions of the 19th century and the looser manners of the 1980s. That may seem like an obvious fact, but the film also offers the intriguing idea that perhaps the two actors, Mike and Anna, become so committed to their roles that reality and fiction begin to blur. What was deemed unaceeptable by society during Victorian times may seem a little ”forbidden” and thus attractive to Mike and Anna a hundred years later… but in any case, their romance does threaten to upend the relationships they will be coming back to once the shoot is over.

The greatest emotional turmoil takes place in the 1800s though, and director Karel Reisz takes us back to that period in elegant fashion. We’re drawn into the increasingly more passionate romance between Charles and Sarah, in part because of the technical efforts of Reisz’s team, including Freddie Francis’s windswept cinematography that makes you want to see Lyme Regis for yourself. Another reason is naturally the two leads who have double roles (and very different eras) to handle. The greatest challenge is for Streep to play both a woman condemned by society and an actress who is fascinated with how women were treated in those days, but Irons is also impressive in his first big-screen leading role.

The supporting cast has solid talents, including Patience Collier as the comically strict lady who employs Sarah for a short while until she’s predictably horrified by her ”behavior”.

The novel experiments with conventions in more ways than one, offering three different endings for Charles and Sarah. Since the film has two stories, Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter provide us with two endings, one for Charles and Sarah, and another for Mike and Anna. The narrative experiment of the novel would likely not have worked well in this movie, but now we’re sort of getting it all – an open ending, yet a sense of resolution.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman 1981-Britain. 123 min. Color. Produced by Leon Clore. Directed by Karel Reisz. Screenplay: Harold Pinter. Novel: John Fowles. Cinematography: Freddie Francis. Music: Carl Davis. Costume Design: Tom Rand. Cast: Meryl Streep (Sarah Woodruff/Anna), Jeremy Irons (Charles Henry Smithson/Mike), Leo McKern (Dr. Grogan), Hilton McRae, Emily Morgan, Charlotte Mitchell.

Trivia: James Fox was allegedly considered for Irons’s role; at an earlier stage Vanessa Redgrave was reportedly considered for the lead.

Golden Globe: Best Actress (Streep). BAFTA: Best Actress (Streep), Film Music, Sound.

Last word: “I didn’t feel I was living it. You always want to do something better after the fact. I’m giving myself an out, but part of it was, the structure of it was sort of artificial because I was the actress playing the French Lieutenant’s Woman. At the same time I was an American actress playing a British woman.” (Streep, “The Graham Norton Show”)

 

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