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The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

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A film is being made of a story, set in 19th century England, about Charles, a biologist who's engaged to be married, but who falls in love with outcast Sarah, whose melancholy makes her ... See full summary »



(novel), (screenplay)
Nominated for 5 Oscars. Another 9 wins & 14 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Hilton McRae ...
Emily Morgan ...
Charlotte Mitchell ...
Mrs. Tranter
Lynsey Baxter ...
Jean Faulds ...
Mr. Freeman
Liz Smith ...
Mrs. Fairley
Patience Collier ...
Mrs. Poulteney
John Barrett ...
Dr. Grogan
Arabella Weir ...
Girl on Undercliff
Ben Forster ...
Boy on Undercliff


A film is being made of a story, set in 19th century England, about Charles, a biologist who's engaged to be married, but who falls in love with outcast Sarah, whose melancholy makes her leave him after a short, but passionate affair. Anna and Mike, who play the characters of Sarah and Charles, go, during the shooting of the film, through a relationship that runs parallel to that of their characters. Written by Leon Wolters <wolters@strw.LeidenUniv.nl>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


She was lost from the moment she saw him.


Drama | Romance


R | See all certifications »




Release Date:

16 October 1981 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

La amante del teniente francés  »

Company Credits

Production Co:

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
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Did You Know?


Director John Frankenheimer once said of adapting John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969) novel: "There is no way you can film the book. You can tell the same story in a movie, of course, but not in the same way. And how Fowles tells his story is what makes the book so good". See more »


Early in the film when Charles takes a horse-drawn carriage to visit Ernestine the horse changes between shots (confirmed by the number of "stocking" feet it has). See more »


Dr. Grogan: [quoting Dr. Hartmann's treatise on melancholia] "It was as if her torture had become her delight."
See more »


Adagio from Sonata in D, K 576
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (as Mozart)
Played by John Lill
See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

Complex yet Stunning
24 January 2002 | by (England) – See all my reviews

I came to the film adaptation of 'The French Lieutnant's Woman' with initial trepidation. As anyone who has read the John Fowles novel will appreciate, this is one text for which adaptation would not be a walk in the park.

How unfounded my uncertainty was! The director, writer and actors did a fantastic job in adapting a complex novel to the screen. The film works impeccably as a metaphor for what the novel was trying to achieve, which is all we should expect from film adaptations.

Stand out features include:

The actors are perfect. I can't say anything new about Meryl Streep, who I believe to be the finest actress ever to have graced the cinema screen. Here (as ever) she is perfect - if you didn't know she was American you would believe she is English, the accent is so accurate. She embodies the character of Sarah perfectly with a multi layered performance, managing to convey Sarah's dignity, her independence and her complex mystery. My only criticism (if you can call it that) is that she is too beautiful! According to the novel, Sarah is "not beautiful by any period's standards", but with her porcelain complexion and delicate features, Meryl Streep is stunning. As Charles, Jeremy Irons gives a commanding performance, managing to convey the character's genteel veneer and the inner passion that lurks beneath. Both actors are excellent, and the chemistry between the leads is tangible.

A "Story within a story". The way in which Harold Pinter weaves the Fowles tale with the lives of Anna and Mike - the actresses who are playing the Victorian lovers, is inspired. The manner in which the film flits from Victorian age to modern day, is the filmic way of conveying Fowles's tendency in the novel to judge his Victorian characters and their era by Twentieth Century standards. Some critics have found this device jarring - I find it clever and affecting.

Overall, 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' is a beautiful, haunting tale of repressed love and social hypocrisy. Right from the opening shot, where we see the image of Sarah on the Cobb looking out to sea, the viewer is grabbed and drawn into this complex world. The actors are faultless, the screenplay ingenious and the cinematography and score, haunting. If you normally find yourself disappointed by novel adaptations, look no further than 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' to show you that when a work is adapted properly, the results can be stunning.

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