In a video essay produced for Criterion's release of The French Lieutenant's Woman, film scholar Ian Christie bemoans the fact that the movie isn't as appreciated or well-remembered as it ought to be, noting that a huge amount of “cultural effort” went into the ambitious adaptation of John Fowles' ambitious novel. Indeed, one can't help but admire director Karel Reisz's tremendous attention to detail, screenwriter Harold Pinter's metafictionally-charged narrative ambitions and the nuanced dual performances offered by Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons (two cinematic legends at the dawn of their respective careers). It's a handsome, classy film with a verified pedigree, and yet... I find myself unable to connect with it on an emotional level.
The film tells the story of a 19th century romance – or rather, it tells the story of people telling the story of a 19th century romance. Mike (Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers) and Anna (Meryl Streep, Doubt) are actors who have been cast in the lead roles of a new adaptation of The French Lieutenant's Woman. Mike is playing Charles Henry Smithson, a respected English paleontologist who is engaged to be married to Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter, Doc Martin), the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Anna plays Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast who is said to be grieving over the dissolution of an illicit affair she had with a French Lieutenant. The two meet, talk around their feelings, begin conducting an affair and plunge headlong into a series of dramatic consequences.
While the book waits until its closing stretch to reveal its multiple layers, the film informs us right off the bat that we aren't merely watching a Victorian melodrama. No, The French Lieutenant's Woman is a movie about a movie about a Victorian melodrama. Despite the fact that Mike and Anna are the film's “real” characters, we spend the bulk of our time with Charles and Sarah, and the film rarely interrupts their scenes together with shots of crew members or other anachronistic distractions. In other words, the majority of the movie feels like a regular period film, even if the present-day scenes constantly remind us that we're merely watching actors. Of course, we're “merely watching actors” in pretty much every traditional narrative feature, but most of them don't remind us of that fact on such a regular basis.
This is a bold, risky structural idea, arguably even bolder than the structure offered by the book. Fowles gave his readers ample time to get lost in the world of Charles and Sarah; to grow invested in their plight before the fourth wall-breaking elements were permitted to enter the fray and shake things up. The movie opts to let us know what's up right off the bat, so in every scene, we're fully aware that we're watching two people performing. As a result, it's difficult to get too emotionally invested in the story of Sarah and Charles, as there's a part of us that's always aware that no matter what happens, they get to transform into successful actors at the end of the day.
There's much to admire here, of course, including some of the parallels that exist between the “real” and “fake” romances we see: Mike and Anna (who are both in relationships with other people) begin having an affair that mirrors the affair Sarah and Charles are having, but the atmosphere and consequences are dramatically different. When Mike and Anna sleep together, it seems like a casual way to pass the time – everybody knows, and nobody really cares (though of course both parties try to keep their loved ones in the dark). When Charles and Sarah sleep together, they are passionately breaking the rigid rules of their society. In a sexless era, sex is far more meaningful.
Reisz's direction isn't particularly flashy, but there are a lot of little moments in which the film catches you off-guard with its immense beauty. There are scenes in the 19th century portion of the movie that look like living paintings – just take a look at the scene in which Irons stumbles across Streep in the woods and sees her sitting beneath the shade of a large tree. By contrast, the present-day scenes have an almost documentary-style look, as the unworried and unhurried characters go about their assorted routines.
Irons and Streep are both excellent, as they often are. They play their present-day scenes with a loose, relaxed charm, while digging in deep and doing Real Acting in the period sequences. However, because the actors are constantly “breaking character,” the performances tend to feel like they're part of a professional acting class. Streep's enigmatic mournfulness is compelling, and Irons does a great job of charting his character's journey from lovestruck suitor to hollowed-out trainwreck. They do everything within their power to make the story emotionally compelling, but they're working against a movie that is more interested in offering an intellectual examination of their relationship than an emotionally absorbing one (despite the sweeping, romantic music from composer Carl Davis). The French Lieutenant's Woman is a handsome, intelligently-crafted object – arguably even an exceptional work of art – but it doesn't make us care.
The French Lieutenant's Woman
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 1981