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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
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.
This movie opens with a scene of an archaeologist chipping at a
multi-chambered Nautilus shell fossilized in stone. The image is
apropos, as the story itself opens from chamber to ever larger chamber
as it weaves two seemingly disparate stories with a clever ending.
Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep are impressive as the leads in two different time lines. In one, Streep is a woman of poor reputation who ensnares a gentleman (Irons) in the black hole of her own guilt and loss. In the other, they are the romantically involved actors making a movie about a woman of poor reputation who ensnares a gentleman. And if that sounds a little too clever, it nonetheless has more creativity and insight than typical plot-twist movie, including the most contrived and overrated movie of all time, Memento (not good enough to be called bad).
There is a scene, in which Streep and Irons are rehearsing a scene from the movie, and, according to the story, it just isn't working. Then, all at once, Streep gets a look on her face, and we are transported into the past time line with a single glance from the greatest working actress and second only to Katherine Hepburn as the greatest actress of all time.
The cinematography, costumes and set designs are legendary, and come from the same team that gave us The Count of Monte Christo, which featured Guy Pearce, who was in the above-mentioned Memento (it still stinks, but how's that for six degrees?). And speaking of legends, the screenplay was written by none other than Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, and it shows.
It is a sublime movie experience to watch the delicately chambered story open up, and there are scenes that are so memorable, like Streep on the misty pier, that you would swear this movie comes from the Golden Age of cinema, not the go-go eighties. The movie is emotionally draining, and Streep gives a typically high concept performance. Irons lacks something, but it's not clear what, but in the end it helps support the story by making him appear flawed enough to have been trapped in the intricate web of The French Lieutenant's Woman.
Haunting environments, two of the century's greatest film actors, one
of the half-dozen or so best modern playwrights and Fowles' experiment
in parallel narratives. Fowles' work was pale compared to Nabokov's
"Pale Fire," for instance in building a convoluted, layered narrative,
but is comparable in extent. Here, Pinter's obsession with time refines
the vision -- his "Proust Screenplay," also centered on layered time,
is much studied and admired.
Everything clicks here. Gorton's designs are detailed and hypnotizing, especially the use of the Lyme groin and related tunnel-like streets. Francis' camera (after "Elephant Man") captures a dim grey sky, made sharp in modern sequences. With the director, they have contrived to quote great paintings. In particular, the first shot after the three year search when Irons gets the telegram directly and obviously references a famous Monet painting -- in fact the first impressionistic painting, a turning point in the artist's perspective. Davis' music -- the only thing that spans time -- supports.
And Meryl is lovely, but so different in each role. We really wonder if her modern madness created the modern affair in quest of the perfect chemistry for the Sarah role It makes Sarah's imagination deeper and more self-referential than in the book. One scene is uniquely masterful: the modern actors "walk" through a scene, then they do it again. Streep turns on, "steps into" the role and becomes Sarah, and a moment later, she pulls the whole scene into the past. This will stick with you, I promise.
The director, Reisz, is supposed to have suggested the concept to Pinter, and then attracted the very best. His tightness of vision is apparent. I wish he were still making films. In a sense he is: he literally "wrote the book" on modern film editing.
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.
If you're researching the beginnings of today's Goth movement, be sure to look at this complex tale of Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep), a secretive, pale-skinned outcast in a 19th century English coastal town. Known to the locals as "poor tragedy," she sketches spooky self-portraits, always dresses in black and haunts the sea wall waiting for the return of a Frenchman who seduced and abandoned her. With a single, unforgettable look and such dialogue as "my only happiness is when I sleep; when I wake, the nightmare begins," Sarah bewitches visiting Londoner Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons, in what turned out to be his big break), a paleontologist and "gentleman of leisure." The tricky screenplay by Harold Pinter contrasts the story of Sarah and Charles with the lives of actors Mike and Anna, who are playing them in a film. Offscreen, Anna is anything but Victorian, indulging in an on-location affair with Mike while her husband is away. The contrasts between the two couples born 100 years apart make for one of the most intriguing films of the early 1980s, and the performances by Irons and Streep are predictably outstanding.
This film is visually fascinating as well as dramatically satisfying.
camera shot is breathtaking - this includes both stories.
The script is brilliant. I thoroughly enjoyed the post-modernist self-awareness - the blurred line between one reality and the other calls the entire experience into question. But I knew I was watching modern actors playing in a period piece and I was still caught up in the story, both stories - which mirror each other and make you wonder which character is influencing which performance. Irons gets to play two obsessive roles, something he seems to be really good at. Streep is enthralling and brings a third dimension to two enigmatic roles perfectly suited for her.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although John Fowles's novel is set in the Victorian period and deals
with a love affair, it is more than just a period romance. Throughout
the book there is a strong authorial voice, which Fowles uses to
comment on Victorian social and sexual mores, and the way in which they
contrast with those of Fowles's own day. The book famously has two
alternative endings, one happy and the other tragic; this device is
perhaps Fowles's ironic comment on literary conventions and on the
"omniscient narrator" persona which he adopts elsewhere in the work.
These stylistic devices therefore mean that this is not the easiest of novels to transfer to the screen. The solution that Harold Pinter came up with was to combine Fowles's Victorian story with another story, set in the present day. The film moves back and forth between the two periods. A similar device was used in another British film of this period, "Heat and Dust", although in that case both stories were present in the film's literary source.
The Victorian part of the film tells the story of Charles Smithson, a wealthy gentleman and amateur scientist, who visits Lyme Regis in Dorset in order to search for fossils. (The area around Lyme has become known as "The Jurassic Coast" because of the rich fossil beds in the area). While there he meets and falls in love with a young woman named Sarah Woodruffe, even though he is already engaged to Ernestina, the pretty daughter of a wealthy businessman.
Some years ago, Sarah was jilted by her sweetheart, a French lieutenant, and has been named by the locals "Poor Tragedy" from her habit of walking along the seashore, dressed in black, looking out to sea as though waiting for his return. The belief that she was the man's mistress has gained her the more contemptuous title of "The French Lieutenant's Whore"; the film's title derives from the reluctance of the genteel Ernestina to use the word "whore". Charles's initial feeling is simply one of concern for the young woman's welfare, but he soon feels a powerful attraction for her and decides that he must leave Ernestina for her, despite being warned by his friend Dr Grogan not to do so. Grogan has diagnosed Sarah as suffering from what he calls "obscure melancholy", a condition which manifests itself in intense guilt feelings and in the masochistic tendency to inflict emotional pain on herself.
The modern-day part of the film concerns the attempt to make a film about the story of Charles and Sarah, and the affair between Mike and Anna, the actors cast in the two leading roles. Jeremy Irons plays both Charles and Mike, and Meryl Streep both Sarah and Anna.
The Victorian part of the film works very well as a powerful and potentially tragic love-story, conjuring up the sexual repression and double standards which dominated that period. Sarah and her French sweetheart were not, in fact, lovers in the physical sense, but many local people believed they were, and this suspicion has been enough to blight her life. It is unlikely that a man's reputation would have been destroyed by a casual encounter in this way. On the other hand, double standards could also sometimes work against the male sex as well. A woman, for example, who decided she had made a mistake by getting engaged would have found it much easier to break her engagement. Charles only avoids being sued for breach of promise by signing a humiliating confession, in which he acknowledges that he has forfeited the right to be considered a gentleman, and is haunted by guilt over broken engagement, especially as Ernestina has done nothing to deserve such treatment. In the book Ernestina comes across as rather insipid, but here Lynsey Baxter, only sixteen at the time and appearing in her first film, makes her a delightful young lady.
Irons and Streep are excellent as Charles and Sarah. (This was also Irons's first leading film role, and the one which made him a major star). Streep copes perfectly with the British accent, although she did perhaps sound a bit too upper-class for Sarah, who comes from a lower-middle-class background. She also looks particularly striking in this film, with her red hair and pale alabaster complexion contrasting with her black clothing. The scene where Charles first meets her, on the storm-swept Cobb in Lyme, has become one of the most iconic scenes in the cinema of the eighties. There are also excellent performances from Leo McKern as the perceptive and kindly Grogan, from Peter Vaughan as Ernestina's doting father and from Patience Collier as Sarah's obnoxious employer Mrs Poulteney.
I am a great admirer of the original novel, but what works on the printed page cannot always be transferred to the screen, and Pinter's attempt to find a cinematic equivalent to Fowles's literary devices struck me as a vain one. The modern-day love story always seemed weak and trivial by comparison with the much more serious Victorian one. Neither Mike nor Anna was a sympathetic character, especially as both were married and cheating on their spouses. When Anna decides not to leave her husband for Mike we do not feel pity for him in the way that we pity Charles when he is abandoned by Sarah. I felt that the film-makers would have done better to omit the modern scenes and to concentrate exclusively on the Victorian story. The result would have been a different film, but in my view probably a better one. Nevertheless, the film we have is a fine one. 8/10
This film is a joy to watch -- as not many films these days are. The settings are superbly created -- the green, grotto-like woodland where Irons and Streep meet in the Victorian world of the film, the murky streets of Lyme, Exeter, and London, and the interior of the lawyer's office, for example. The Victorian part of the film emerges from the dawning of the concept of abnormal psychology (just before Freud) and is really convincing. Streep shows us that her character cannot move on emotionally until she has worked out her own madness. That constitutes a remarkable and complex performance of insanity and self-awareness inhabiting a single psyche. She earns the gentle movement out of the tunnel and onto the calm lake. The turbulence of the unconscious -- that threatening sea of which Irons has warned her -- has been subdued. Seems to me the flaw lies in the 'modern story' (as some here have pointed out). It may be that the Streep character is trying to find a subtext for her fictional heroine, but it looks like the old ennui, so that, while her lack of concern for the relationship is understandable, his obsession with it is not. Though the garden party at the end almost gets it there. Were we shown her decision there? If so, I missed it. I like the concept of the 'two endings' and their contrast, but the ending in the 20th century was a so what? The one in the 19th century was complex and included much of the pain that the relationship had caused both characters. A little more attention to the contemporary love affair -- to suggest that it was more than just a romp on location -- would have helped that dimension of the film per se and also suggested what the Victorian lovers had earned within their Hardyesque world.
This is a real curio of a movie, more a dry experiment with form than a story concerning fleshed-out characters. The primary focus is on the plot developments of a film within the film--a story of two illicit lovers in 19th century England--while a secondary narrative follows the two leads in that film who pursue a similar relationship to the one they portray. The way these two stories intercut back and forth is, unfortunately, one of the few interesting things in the movie. Unique to this presentation is the way the Victorian Era scenes are shown only (with the opening scene being a lone exception) as a finished product, that is, we see that part of the film as its theoretical audience would. There are no shots of cameras in the foreground, no scenes of director and crew watching rushes in a darkened theater. This device might have allowed the viewer to become more involved in the "old-time" goings on--if only we had been given something, anything onto which we could have hung our emotional hats. This is the insurmountable problem of "The French Lieutenant's Woman." While the Victorian Era plot is luxuriantly mounted--while the characters are played by wonderful actors--the "heart" of this film is occupied by this film within a film device. While interesting, it's not enough to keep our interest from flagging. In both story lines, emotions are uniformly muted, or absent altogether. The 20th century story is about two bored actors who engage in their affair simply as a distraction from the tedium of making a movie. No hint of passion here. The Victorian narrative at least provides a HINT of feeling, but always held at arms length--and further attenuated by the inevitable return to the modern story, reminding us that the "costumer" portion of the film is not only not real, but TWICE removed from reality. There is a scene at the end of the movie where all signs point to some grand cathartic denouement--a scene where, finally, we will be swept up into the currents of these players' lives, the promise of romance finally realized. Instead we are given an awkward, bumbled scene without so much as a kiss or an eloquent avowal of love. We are left with a muted, distant view of the two purported lovers on a lake--its surface as calm and unmoved as the film's audience. A disappointing end to a disappointing film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Spoilers! The film is very disappointing. The lack of chemistry between the two stars, the insertion of the modern story with the lack of chemistry between the players within the modern story, the overacting by all the actors (or is it poor directing?) the length of the film, the assumption that we would believe Sarah a virgin when Charles finds her at the hotel, that we would believe Jeremy's character would be so gullible and go against very inflexible norms of Victorian behavior, the fact that the heroine should have been an English actress, the attempt to too literally adapt the novel to film, and then the overlay of Darwin, Freud, and the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood just made a totally unengaging, wearing film.
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