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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 & 15 nominations. See more awards »


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Cast overview, first billed only:
Hilton McRae ...
Emily Morgan ...
Charlotte Mitchell ...
Mrs. Tranter
Jean Faulds ...
Mr. Freeman
Mrs. Fairley
Girl on Undercliff
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  »


Box Office

Gross USA:

See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Production Co:

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
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Did You Know?


The movie has two stars that have both won best acting Academy Awards - Jeremy Irons for Reversal of Fortune (1990) and Meryl Streep for Sophie's Choice (1982) and The Iron Lady (2011), the latter also winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). See more »


Charles approaches the shore on a steam powered launch from the north. The next shot is also a shot in motion, suggesting from Charles' viewpoint, of Broad Leys, a white house high up on the shore where Sarah is working. Except the view of Broad Leys is as though from the south. See more »


Charles Henry Smithson: [to Ernestina] I can assure you, the true charm of this world resides in this garden.
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Referenced in Saturday Night Live: Blythe Danner/Rickie Lee Jones (1982) See more »


Prelude in C minor
Written by Johann Sebastian Bach
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Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

More than just a great film. It's an experience of seeing how reality and fiction works
16 July 2011 | by See all my reviews

Beautiful, original and intelligent of using a certain source (a book written by John Fowles), changing the perspective presented in it and turning it into a fresh cinematic experience that is as much satisfying than the original source, the film version of "The French Lieutenant's Woman" escapes the sometimes overused routine of following the literature step by step by creating a nice way to compare life with reality, mixing two stories into basically the same context.

Harold Pinter's screenplay takes the story from the book, told in the Victorian England, and adds the element of the movie within a movie, dividing it into two segments: the actors playing in a romantic film and the actors life in a current period. Let me organize the situation: in the modern times, two actors (played by Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, are shooting a movie whose story takes place in 1800's, with Irons playing an respected biologist engaged to a rich woman who ends up falling in love by the mysterious French Liutenant's woman (Streep), who awaits for his lover to return. During those times where moral was above anything else their romance seems to be faded to failure, almost impossible to exist since she isn't seen with good looks by society constantly called as crazy or as the French Lieutenant's whore. This is practically an unhappy story at first glance. Later, we'll notice the actors life following the same path as the characters they play except the times are other, things are a lot easier for them; they're in love with each other but they're married with other people. And this story seems a happier story than the other, also at first glance.

The intersection of both stories serves to show us not only which couple (the real one or the fictional one) might last together but also the period contrasts (there's a scene in which the actors are reading a paper with informations of how things were during the Victorian Era and they are surprised by the facts they learn) The examination one must have of both stories is the relationship between the characters played by Streep and Irons, and the way both have similarities even one being a work of fiction and the other being the reality. The only problem with the film directed by Karel Reisz is the fact we spend more time following the movie within the movie instead of following more of the actors life and their romance, which only had a notable importance when the other story was concluding as well. I'm not saying that the other story wasn't interesting but we should spend an equally balanced time with both segments so that we could see things more fairly, properly presented. Even so, the screenplay is brilliantly written and very original in terms of developing a story that goes to show the distinction between fiction and reality without playing tricks or use of excessive surprises to impress the viewers.

But a film is not only its script. "The French Lieutenant's Woman" has an fascinating and careful art direction and sceneries, beautifully made, recreating England of the 19th Century is great details; costumes and clothes are also great; the cinematography is impeccable and one of the most wonderful works I've ever seen. At last, the most interesting aspect of the film is the acting delivered by Meryl Streep (Oscar nominated for this roles, after all she plays two roles) and Jeremy Irons (he deserved a nomination that year, playing one of his first leading roles showing a great talent in carrying the whole film). I've seen them playing another couple in the underrated "The House of the Spirits" and I loved them in that film just as much as in this film. They make acting seem easy whether playing complicated characters like the ones played here or in blockbuster films as well. And their characters go through everything here, love, hate, insanity, possession, kindness, a high range of emotions that very few actors can be natural and have a certain simplicity in playing it. Sparks fly high when they're together!

Where do we have the chance to be really happy? In fiction or in reality? True love is that same kind of love we see in pictures or it's different in life? See it for yourself and think of some conclusions by watching this absolutely great film. 10/10

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