"The Cobb" is the old harbor wall at Lyme Regis where we see "that scene" as Sarah / Anna stands on the harbor wall as the waves crash around her. It was deemed too dangerous for Meryl to get up onto the Cobb while the waves were crashing. So any distance shots actually have one of the art directors standing in for her. The close ups were done in the safety of the studio.
The role of Charles Henry Smithson was first offered to James Fox who was then returning to acting after a decade working for an Evangelical Christian movement. Fox turned the part down "for moral reasons". The role in the end was cast with Jeremy Irons.
The secret place where Anna (Meryl Streep) and Charles (Jeremy Irons) met regularly was at "The Undercliff" - i.e. the Lyme Regis Undercliff, a wild steeply-sloped coastal woodlands which stretches for a distance of six miles (= 9.5 kilometers) out of Lyme.
The film's two top-billed lead actors both played dual roles each for characters featured in two separate times, period and contemporary. Actress Meryl Streep portrayed both Anna and Sarah Woodruff whilst actor Jeremy Irons played both Mike and Charles Henry Smithson.
According to website 'Wikipedia', the picture's "transfer to the big screen was a protracted process, with film rights changing hands a number of times before a treatment, funding, and cast were finalised. Originally, Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Bigsby approached [John] Fowles to suggest a television adaptation, to which Fowles was amenable, but producer Saul Zaentz finally arranged for the film version to go ahead".
The now famous wave, wind and storm swept cobble-stoned breakwater harbor wall locale that features in the film, as well as on many movie posters, DVD and home video covers for the picture, where Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep) stands in danger gazing out to the sea, is located in Lyme Regis in the English country of Dorset. Known as "The Cobb", the structure also features in the Jane Austen novel "Persuasion" (1818), as well as both this movie and John Fowles' source "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969) novel.
First Academy Award nomination for the Oscar category of Best Actress for Meryl Streep who did not win but would the following year for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Sophie's Choice (1982). Streep had previously been Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress for both The Deer Hunter (1978) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) winning the gong for the latter. Since The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Streep has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role / Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role fourteen times giving Streep in total fifteen Best Actress Oscar nominations [to date, February 2015].
Actress Meryl Streep had daily lessons with a voice-coach to develop an English accent and arrived in England three months prior to the start of principal photography for this Victorian vocal training.
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".
"The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969) was the third published novel of author John Fowles after "The Collector" (1963) and "The Magus" (1965). Both of these earlier works had previously been filmed prior to the publishing of "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969) [See: The Collector (1965) and The Magus (1968)]. As "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969) was a best-seller, it instantly became a hot property for a filmed version during that mid-to-late 1960s era that these other two Fowles films had been made, as well during this period there being a cycle of D.H. Lawrence filmed adaptations, but all attempts around this time, and after for around a decade, failed to get "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969) novel off-the ground as a movie.
Publicity for this picture stated that the movie's source "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969) novel by John Fowles was a best-seller and had sold more than four million copies and had been published in eighteen different languages.
About a decade prior to this film being developed, made and released, the movie's director Karel Reisz turned-down source novelist John Fowles offer to make a filmed version of his novel. Reisz stated that he had just finished making Isadora (1968) and was not currently interested in making another period film at that point in time. In 1979, Fowles again approached Reisz and this time agreed though he did recognize the issues, problems and obstacles faced by other filmmakers in the interim in trying to bring the complex novel to the screen that had preceded his attachment to the project.
The film's director Karel Reisz once said of this film: "I admired the novel tremendously from my first reading, but I didn't see how to turn it into a drama. The book has two exceptional qualities as a source for a movie. First, quite simply, it has a wonderful story that centers on the extraordinary character of Sarah Woodruff, a turbulent, passionate spirit who is, so to speak, born into the wrong age. She has some of the visions we associate with the 20th Century, but she was born penniless into the 19th Century. Secondly, the novel is a kind of a game. It tells a Victorian story, but does so from the vantage point of today. Fowles continually invites us to view events with our modern knowledge. He plays with the idea that he is only writing a fiction, and shares some of his problems with us".
John Fowles, the film's source author, has said that he had mentally cast Meryl Streep in the role of Sarah years before The Deer Hunter (1978) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Reisz had seen Streep play Kate in William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" in Central Park, New York. Resiz said: "She was so audacious, so free. She has a range of temperament that is very rare, and a very special sort of daring".
Source novelist John Fowles once said of the casting of Meryl Streep in the lead female roles: "I thoroughly approved. I had often thought of Sarah as American in her independence and freedom from convention".
Actress Meryl Streep once said of this film: "I promised John Fowles that I would not try to explain Sarah. It's not my baby, it's his, and I am merely an interpretive actress. If the picture triggers a controversy over what Sarah is really like, is she the prototype of a new woman, a liar, a psychopath, a whore, that's good. She's all that and more".
Source novelist John Fowles had not been happy with the filmed versions of his two earlier novels "The Collector" (1963) and "The Magus" (1965) [See: The Collector (1965) and The Magus (1968)]. Both of these earlier works had previously been filmed prior to the publishing of Fowles' third novel "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969). So Fowles insisted on selecting the director of The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) and his first choice, Karel Reisz, became the movie's director.
The romance between Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep) and Charles Henry Smithson (Jeremy Irons) in this film and it source John Fowles 1969 novel of the same name has often been compared with that between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Brontë's novel "Wuthering Heights" (1847) and its filmed versions.
In "Harold Pinter's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981): A Masterpiece of Adaptation" from the book "The Films of Harold Pinter" (2001), author Steven H. Gale states that "Acton's Report" which is mentioned in the film by Meryl Streep, when she says in the journal "The Lancet" that there were estimated in 1857 to be 80,000 working prostitutes in the County of London and that one house in sixty functioned as a brothel, references the work "Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects" (1857) by William Acton.
'Rating the Movies' says of this film: "The [source 'John Fowles'] novel uses asides to make its comments on society; the film uses a story-within-a-story structure, about a filmmaking company whose players duplicate their onscreen involvements when they're off the screen".
The name of the book that Dr. Grogan (Leo McKern) was reading was "The Origin of the Species" (1859) by Charles Darwin. The work is also known as "On the Origin of Species" or by its long title "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life".
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The source original novel "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969) does not feature the subplot of the actors playing the parts in a modern day film. The novel did, however, feature three alternate ending endings, from which readers could choose their favorite. SPOILER: Creating two parallel story lines allowed the filmmakers to include two of those endings, one happy and one tragic.