A lone woman in a hooded cape stands at the end of a long rock sea wall. A gentleman, in Victorian dress, braves the crashing waves to lead her back to safety. But, as the woman turns to reveal her face, the man is struck by her beauty and for a moment the two characters silenced by love at first sight. The woman is played by the inimitable Meryl Streep, the gentleman is played by Jeremy Irons, and the film is Karel Reisz’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981) featured as part of our Meryl Streep Retrospective, this September on MGM HD.
“The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” which marks it’s 40th anniversary this year, is a romance, a melodrama, and a movie about ideas. Based on John Fowles’ novel of the same name, the book was long considered too difficult to film, including by the author himself. A postmodern masterpiece, Fowles’ book used the tale of fallen woman in Victorian society to pointedly discuss larger issues about morality in England at that time. In the years after its publication, weaving together Fowles’ literary text and social subtext was a challenge that stymied several filmmakers, until British playwright Harold Pinter took a crack at writing this screen adaptation.
Pinter created a postmodern trick of his own by using the device of a movie-within-a-movie. Streep and Irons, play both the novel’s main characters Sara Woodruff and Charles Smithson, as well as the actors Anna and Mike, at work making the film. In the intercutting plots, as Sara and Charles fall in love in the nineteenth century, Anna and Mike carry out a very twentieth century on-set affair. The parallel storytelling allowed the filmmakers to contrast and comment upon the manners of each era. It also gave them a clever way to deal with the book’s multiple endings – which we will not give away here.
But big ideas aside, the pleasures of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” can be found in the superior acting. To watch Meryl Streep in “French Lieutenant’s Woman” is to watch young actress in full control of her power on screen. Streep’s star-making performances in the film are a masterclass in character development and emotion which earned her both an Academy Award® nomination and a Golden Globe® win. And yes, she does do an accent. Jeremy Irons turns in a brilliant performance charting each of his characters’ obsession with Streep’s. Part of the fun of the movie is watching how the supporting cast played their modern parts against their period character counterparts.
Look for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” this September on MGM HD.