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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 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>
A classic film about sexual repression past and present
I loved The French Lieutenant's Woman. The film-within-the-film is more than just an experimental device - it is actually a key feature of how the film works and part of what makes it so fascinating and enjoyable. Harold Pinter, who wrote the screenplay and has a Nobel Prize for Literature, should be given some credit for knowing what he is doing. The two stories in the film are juxtaposed to provide intriguing contrasts and comparisons. At first, I found myself thinking that the point was to show how much easier and more uncomplicated sexual relationships are in the twentieth century, but as the story develops, and as more entanglements obstructing their happiness are revealed, I began to realize that the film may really be trying to show that we are not so different from the Victorians after all: we have our own obsessions, repressions and frustrations. A happy middle-class family proves to be as much of an obstacle to sexual gratification and fulfilment as hypocritical Victorian morality. A warning: there is no point watching this film for visible and clearly expressed emotion and a satisfyingly romantic representation of love in this film, since it makes a point of resisting that by focusing on the characters' awkward and embarrassing fumblings, and by deliberately avoiding all the clichés of period drama. The inclusion of the contemporary story line actually helps us to distance ourselves from the Victorian plot rather than drawing us into it, and makes Jeremy Irons's proposal at the beginning, or the love scene in Exeter between him and Streep, more comic and ridiculous, than volcanic and romantic. But that is the point, isn't it? Period films have a tendency to ignore how bizarre sexuality was in the past, and by romanticizing and familiarizing it, make it more easy for us to consume now. But there was no such thing as "normal" sexuality in Victorian Britain, because, as the statistic about London prostitutes in the film shows, they were all far too screwed up. And maybe we are not so different these days. It's not as if the sex industry has got any smaller since then. It's not a conventional period romance, but if you want something a little more thoughtful and interesting than that, then you will hugely enjoy this film. Apart from anything else, it has two great performances from Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. Streep in particular is spectacularly mysterious and alluring as the object of Irons's sexual obsession. Great film.
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