Actors Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Hilton McRae, Emily Morgan and Charlotte Mitchell under Karel Reisz's superb, sensitive and fluid direction bring Harold Pinter and John Fowles screenplay to the screen in stunning fashion. Some of the scenes will live in the memory for a long time, so powerful are the visuals and, even now, writing this, I can see some of Reisz's iconic images of this great film.
Set in 19th Century England it is the story of a chance meeting between Sarah (Streep), an eerily beautiful woman, and Charles (Irons), a biologist about to be married; they have a brief but passionate affair but her deep sadness and past force her to leave him. Without giving too much away, the film works on two chronological levels, switching seamlessly between the two parallel stories which mirror each other in many ways.
Visually, this film is stunningly beautiful and haunting in the way the story of Sarah, a Victorian outcast, unfolds to reveal her history.
A great film and, at these prices, a real bargain.
on 11 May 2004
"Outside of marriage, your Victorian gentleman could look forward to 2.4 [sexual encounters] a week," Mike (Jeremy Irons) coolly calculates after Anna (Meryl Streep) has read to him the statistics according to which, while London's male population in 1857 was 1 1/4 million, the city's estimated 80,000 prostitutes were receiving a total of 2 million clients per week. And frequently, Anna adds, the women thus forced to earn their living came from respectable positions like that of a governess, simply having fallen into bad luck, e.g. by being discharged after a dispute with their employer and their resulting inability to find another position.
This brief dialogue towards the beginning of this movie based on John Fowles's 1969 novel succinctly illustrates both the fate that would most likely have been in store for title character Sarah (Meryl Streep in her "movie within the movie" role), had she left provincial Lyme Regis on Dorset's Channel coast and gone to London, and the Victorian society's moral duplicity: For while no virtues were regarded as highly as honor, chastity and integrity; while no woman intent on keeping her good name could even be seen talking to a man alone (let alone go beyond that); and while marriage - like any contract - was considered sacrosanct, rendering the partner who deigned to breach it an immediate social outcast, all these rules were suspended with regard to prostitutes; women who, for whatever reasons, had sunk so low they were regarded as nonpersons and thus, inherently unable to stain anybody's reputation but their own.
Appearances would have it that Sarah, too, is just such a woman - however, appearances can be deceptive; and herein lies the starting point of the story's social criticism: Realizing that once society has unjustifiedly placed her in that position, nothing she does will ever wipe away the mark of disgrace she wears as "the scarlet woman of Lyme," Sarah seeks strength in her very role as a pariah; trying to find a liberty not allowed to women of "good" society who are bound by the era's moral prerogatives; and to create a space for herself where she is untouchable because it is too far beyond the accepted social boundaries. In this, she resembles Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne (who however, unlike Sarah, actually had committed the adultery she was accused of). But Sarah's attempt to salvage at least a fraction of her sense of self dramatically fails when she is discharged by conservative old Mrs. Poulteney (Patience Collier) for "exhibiting her shame" by having been seen - against her employer's express prohibition - on an undercliff overlooking the sea across which her supposed suitor, the French lieutenant to whom she owes her less-than-charitable epithet and reputation, disappeared, never to return. Desperate, she literally throws herself at the feet of Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons), who although recently engaged to local merchant Freeman's daughter Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter) has taken more than just a slight interest in her, and who to her has thus become the proverbial white knight in shining armor. Charles in turn, unable to contain his infatuation with Sarah, casts aside the well-meaning counsel of physician Dr. Grogan (Leo McKern) (who considers Sarah's condition a classic case of "obscure melancholia" and would like to see her committed to an asylum) and breaks his engagement with Ernestina, thus incurring social shame himself, to be free for Sarah ... only to find her gone when he returns to take her home.
Faced with the impossibility of creating a screenplay from a novel set in the Victorian Age but told from a 20th century perspective, interspersed with the author's frequent modern-day commentary, in order to maintain that duality, acclaimed playwright Harold Pinter opted for a "movie within a movie" scenario, allowing modern-day actors Mike and Anna to give the commentary provided by Fowles himself in the book. But more than that, Anna and Mike are also a foil for Sarah and Charles in that they are engaged in an extramarital affair; and while late 20th century morality is obviously different from that of the Victorian Age, they, too, must decide what is to become of their romance. And in both cases, it is Sarah/Anna who ultimately makes the decision: In Fowles's novel, one that invites Charles to respond and whose outcome will lastly depend on his response (the author provides two different conclusions, leaving it up to his readers to determine the one most convincing to them); but in the the two actors's case, Anna presents Mike with a fait-accompli, contrasting with the end of Sarah's and Charles's story in the movie.
Sublimely capturing the story's gothic atmosphere with its candlelit rooms, stormy nights and a haunted woman who - particularly when first seen standing at the edge of a quay, oblivious to the winds and raging waves around her - appears more like a ghost than a human being, "The French Lieutenant's Woman" is perfectly cast with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons in the dual roles of Sarah/Anna and Charles/Mike: While outwardly quite different (Anna is upbeat but rational, Sarah passionate and vulnerable), both women ultimately find strength within themselves, whereas both men are sensitive and generally quieter, although Charles especially is Sarah's passionate equal once his feelings are stirred. Scored by Carl Davis and also boasting a strong supporting cast - including appearances by Hilton McRae (Charles's manservant Sam), Emily Morgan (Ernestina's maid Mary), Colin Jeavons (the vicar who, attempting to help Sarah, introduces her to Mrs. Poulteney), Gerard Falconetti (Anna's husband Davide) and Penelope Wilton (Mike's wife Sonia) - "The French Lieutenant's Woman" won a Golden Globe for Meryl Streep (Best Actress) and several British awards, but none of its five Oscar nominations (Best Actress, Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design and Editing - Jeremy Irons unfairly didn't even earn a "Best Actor" nomination). Yet, this is a compelling production, bringing to life Fowles's complex characters in a thoroughly convincing, poignant fashion; and sure to leave a lasting impression.
on 16 May 2010
I loved this film when it first came out. Kept missing it when it was shown on TV. Finally bought it and sat enthralled as the story unfolded. Did not notice the time passing - never made it to the kitchen to put the kettle on, never mind take the time out to make a cup of tea. Completely forgot a DVD can be stopped!!! Just brilliantly acted and the settings are delightful. Loved the modern twist. The two endings were very skillfully done too. Can not rate it highly enough. It has to be seen.
on 2 July 2009
John Fowles abstract romantic masterpiece is a paradox where a "Victorian affair" is viewed from a modern perspective and yet the two time frames melifluously fuse in a stupendous journey of parallel romantic affairs in a scale that brings the time full circle like a metaphorical eternal Greek cycle of philosophical philandering.
Reisz has directed the movie version with intense passion and meticulous detail by converting the story of Sarah [Meryl Streep],the Victorian adventuress, with a tainted reputation who has indulged in an openly scandalous affair with a flamboyant French army officer, and is following it with a tame romantic encounter with a young Breton Charles, who is a decent and conscientious man but not as colorful or interesting as her French lieutenant .
The book is transformed to a visual riddle ,where this complex story is related as a "film within a film" being shot at location ,where Streep plays Sarah and Jeremy Irons plays Charles and the rest of the cast play themselves, with the inevitable conclusion that the two leads start enacting their roles in reality in the present as the past fiction becomes the present fact on the movie set itself ,thus becoming a fascinating study of sexual attitudes from the Victorian period to the contemporary milieu.
The movie has been poetically designed to crossed the past and present with a quaint but haunting emotion that runs across the two periods in a fine thread almost weaving a mystical paradigm which will fascinate those intrigued by novelty and creative imagination in an extremely affective "flashback narrative technique "as the two stories enfold in past and present,except the viewer alone is the target of the flashback and not the characters in the movie itself .
This rather poignant version of a young woman's journey into sexual self indulgence and social ruin in past raises a serious question of whether humanity can avert pre-destined amorous disasters, if given premonitory knoweledge of your adverse future fate and the conclusion derived is that humanity still will venture blindfold as it is the passion,intrigue and excitement which makes life worthy of living in the present itself .
The idea that security is for only the bourgeois, and breaking social tradition becomes both a rebellious spirited act as well as a satisfying inititiative in itself is splendidly rendered here .
Fowle's book is immaculately cast and adapted to render it as a literary and visual accomplishment with a great musical score with charming period details and some intensely romantic visual images of the victorian times with Streep looking sublime in her angst ridden laments .
But Streep outshines everyone as the fragile,doomed,romantic figure awaiting her past beau and than striving with her own desires in the current present as the movie actress , while Iron is admirable in his sangfroid and he is able to give ample scope to Streep to shine but still the doesn't measure up to the book but they seldom do and this is as good as they can muster in these literary adaptations of bona fide classics .
This film "The French Lieutenant's Woman" based on a novel by John Fowles (Author of "The Magus"), and screen play by the famous Harold Pinter, is satisfying on many levels.
We are transported back and forth through time as present day actors making a movie are parallel and overlapped with the characters and the story. We easily see the contrasts and the similarities between the Victorian Sarah and the modern Ann both played by Meryl Streep.
The story on the surface is a strait forwarded mystery and Sarah is not what see seems. However, there are many depths to this film in what is says and what it does not. A biologist Charles Henry Smithson (Jeremy Irons) is finally engaged to a woman who has been trying to tie him down. He will inherit a place in her father's empire if he wishes to do so. At the last moment, he discovers a strange outcast woman that enchant hem and lures hem astray only to disappear from his life. The actors' lives are similar.
Will Charles find Sarah or is his fate to be alone?
What about Ann and Mike?
Many people remember the picturesque scene of Sarah on the Cobb looking out to sea; however, for me it is a scene where the actors are discussing how she is caught on the brambles and trips. In the next scene, it is played out.
on 25 January 2015
I found this a most intriguing film and has long been one of my favourites. Its clear Meryll Streep based her character's portrayal on Lady Di, but it doesn't detract, this is a story of subteranean lust in supposedly repressed Victorian Britain. Perhaps more about women's repression it's played through a film within a film format,quite revoloutionary for its 80's cinema release date. Jeremy Irons is sublime,lean and sexy while Meryl is cool reserved and smoulders especially when both characters appear together, but personally it is English actress Lynsey Baxter who steals the show. She looks beautiful, pale and piqued and shimmers amidst the green of a Victorian conservatory early in the piece. Her clipped rasping speech perfectly evokes the predominence of class then and now and maybe she's telling us that instead of getting rid of class distinction it's this we desire in her, not simply her looks. Anyway she reminds me of a woman who lives in the next street to me,a kind of timeless English country beauty and self posession. Its a role which has preoccupied me more and more as i've grown older,but don't forget it's a great film and well worth the money, new or old.
on 27 April 2015
A fine cinematic telling of John Fowles quality historic/hysteric novel with sterling performances by Streep and Irons who seem to have a peculiar chemistry on,and probably off, set. It's about a lovelorn historical female who waits endlessly for the return of her former French lover and who eventually falls in love with a middle class fossil hunter who then deserts his staid wife for what seems to be a scarlet woman. First time I've actually seen Irons explosively angry at anything (He was pretty anaemic e.g. in Brideshead, true to the character). Plotwise, the film actually plays in two parallel universes with the historical relationship and modern actors' relationships alternating throughout. You have to guess how each will turn out.
An early success for Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, The French Lieutenant's Woman is an interesting piece of meta-cinema that undermines itself a bit by using this technique, but also gains a certain amount by way of texture and reflection on changing attitudes to love and commitment. For most of the film the Victorian story of Charles engaged to Ernestina, who meets Sarah and falls in love with her at first sight - and what a sighting it is - dominates, and does command the viewer's thought and emotions in equal measure; it keeps cutting to the love affair between the actors, Mike and Anna, who are both married ... This pull of the established relationship is shown to work in surprising ways, and the pay-off is certainly intriguing. Carl Davis's music is used brilliantly throughout, but never more so than in that final scene - or indeed on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, scene of that moment referred to above where Sarah turns round in a hooded cape and there stands Charles, having ventured along the stone walkway to bring her in from danger, the waves crashing over his path and spume flying, and the timeless look in her eyes like the eye of the storm. It is certainly something he has never seen before, man of the world though he undoubtedly is ... Such moments do have a sheer cinema magic, and it is a magnificently wrought tale. The visual style is a bit like Truffaut in Ann and Muriel, although I don't think Karel Reisz quite pulls off the same consistent visual flair as Truffaut; while the theme of forbidden love and shame makes it a parallel with Maurice, perhaps. (Seventy minutes into the film a winning messenger boy appears in the street with a message and the stage seems set for a touch of Maurice set a few decades earlier ... but he delivers his note and is not seen thereafter ...) In both those films there is an avoidance of novelistic contrivance you don't quite find here, but then the double aspect justifies this, culminating in a brilliant end-of-shoot party at Mike's house, where we see, in a key scene, a fantastic Karel Appel-like print of a cockerel on the wall that almost upstages the stars. It all blends in, in the end, to make this an entrancing film and Streep shows her beauty and extraordinary sensitivity in two guises, which I don't think she has been called upon to do in any film since.
Having read John Fowles' book upon which the film is based, I have to say that I enjoyed the book more. Still, I must give plaudits to the screenplay by Harold Pinter, as the book with its alternative endings is a little difficult to capture on film. Still, that is just what Pinter did here in a symbolic and ingenious sort of way, with two parallel stories, one contemporary, one Victorian. Coupled with deft direction by Karel Reisz and stunning cinematography, the film fully engages the viewer.
The film is beautifully acted by Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Steep is positively luminous in the role of the enigmatic Sarah Woodruff, a Victorian woman who is wrongfully castigated by her neighbors for being a scarlet woman. Jeremy Edwards is excellent as Charles, the gentleman who becomes obsessed with her and loses his reputation in order to remain free to pursue her.
Streep is also excellent in the role of the married Anne, the contemporary actress with whom Mike (Jeremy Irons), her costar in a film, is having an affair. He is, however, dissatisfied with Anne's casual attentions and wants more. Anne and Mike became lovers while filming "The French Lieutenant's Woman" with Anne playing the role of Sarah Woodruff and Mike in the role of Charles.
Pinter skillfully weaves these two stories together, making for an unusual cinematic experience, which, while not faithful to the book, is compelling, nonetheless. This is an audaciously imaginative and visually lush film, a story within a story that, while thought provoking, is just a tad off the mark.
on 11 June 2014
An unusual format that mirrors the book, which is about writing a book on the subject. Hence, the film is about making the film with the actors appearing both as their modern characters and as characters in the film. Wonderful direction and performances both by the principals and by the supporting cast.