The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) Poster

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Complex yet Stunning
Jen_UK24 January 2002
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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A classic film about sexual repression past and present
josephdrury24 October 2005
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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Smart, atmospheric love story with brilliant actors
kneiss115 September 2010
When I got this movie, and read the title, I wasn't expecting anything that would suit my taste. I have been expecting a cheesy, unrealistic and boring women's movie. - I have been wrong.

Of course it was a bit cheesy, but less cheesy than most Hollywood movies. Actually, the whole movie was quite realistic. Of course this movie is mainly for women. - It's a love story! Yet, I find it has more to offer to male viewers than other love stories. The main actor is male. An absolutely interesting character. A character that is trying hard to be good, but isn't perfect at all. A character you can actually identify with. And my god, Jeremy Irons played that character so well.

This movie has a calm and melancholic atmosphere. I am sure many people will mistake it for "boredom". - Not me; the story is so interesting, that it kept me curious throughout the whole movie. I really didn't know how this story was ending. And yet, the ending satisfied me totally. An extremely unusual case for me.

My pretty much only gripe about the movie is, that the story in the 20th century is suffering in length. While characters and storyline are in perfect shape when it comes to 19th century, the story and characters lack depth, when it comes to the 20th century.
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Terrific -- with one major flaw
hcoursen15 February 2010
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.
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Narrative Folding
tedg18 August 2000
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.
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A multi-chambered Nautilus shell fossilized in stone.
budmassey24 January 2003
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.
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An inspiration to Goths everywhere
kzoofilm19 August 2000
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.
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A wonderful movie
stills-631 July 1999
This film is visually fascinating as well as dramatically satisfying. Every 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.
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First sight of Streep decides it
alrodbel21 November 1999
There are wide extremes of opinion expressed on this board about this film. The film certainly has defects, but they pale when compared to its achievements. It is a tour de force of the cinematic art. The switching between Victorian and Modern eras is seamlessly announced by tone, costume and manerism of character. Meryl Streep's depiction of two women, in differing circumstances and, more importantly, different times is intellectually challenging. But if you do not connect with her fragile appeal or Jeremy Irons soulful searching for fulfillment, as two very different characters, then this will be lost on you. While technically this is film making at its finest, ultimately it is a love story. You either feel for the characters or you don't.
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Romanticism without the "base" alloy of actual feeling
twm-211 February 2005
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.
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More than just a great film. It's an experience of seeing how reality and fiction works
Rodrigo_Amaro16 July 2011
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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Powerful Victorian romance; the modern scenes would have been better omitted.
JamesHitchcock18 July 2007
Warning: 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
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Dramatic tale of dual affairs failed to engage me
roghache26 March 2006
This appears to be a well crafted film, an artistically done 'story within a story'. However, though I realize I am in the minority and the movie's praises were universally sung, I personally did not care for it, finding it somewhat boring, occasionally confusing, and worst of all, NOT emotionally engaging.

The film relates the story of two romances...the affair between two actors, Anna (Meryl Streep) and Mike (Jeremy Irons), who are playing the roles of lovers Sarah Woodruff and Charles Smithson, in a movie set back in 19th Century Britain. Frankly, the darting back and forth between the two affairs, creative though it may have been, was for me simply distracting. I found that I couldn't really become emotionally involved with either couple, and was sometimes even confused as to the point being made.

The stars are accomplished actors and their performances were lauded at the time. Personally, Meryl Streep is normally not my favorite actress as I feel she tends to overact, though I really liked her in Music of the Heart. Jeremy Irons is certainly competent and was quite brilliant in The Mission.

The modern relationship between Anna and Mike simply bored me. During her husband's absence, Anna is indulging in an affair while on location with her co-star. I found this pair unsympathetic and their affair uninteresting. Even THEY did not seem that interested in it! I would have preferred NO story within a story, but simply ONE romance, the Victorian couple, Sarah and Charles. In that case, I might have found their tale more compelling.

As to the Victorian Era affair...Charles is a paleontologist, engaged to be married to a proper young lady, Ernestine, of good family and dowry, when he is bewitched by the fascinating, outcast Sarah and begins a passionate affair. The film does dramatically reveal the contrast between the outwardly respectable, genteel Charles (a proper Victorian gentleman), and his hitherto sexually repressed but actually passionate inner self, as revealed by this illicit love. Sarah, a wronged and tainted woman of ill repute, dubbed by some as 'the French lieutenant's whore', is mysterious and melancholy. My enduring mental picture from this film is of Sarah looking forlornly out to sea, waiting for the return of the French soldier who seduced and abandoned her.

The film has beautiful cinematography, especially the 19th Century scenery. I generally love romances from this period, and I note that another reviewer compared the dramatic seascapes here to the moor landscapes of Wuthering Heights. Yes, sort of a similar mood with the enigmatic, outcast Sarah even shades of the brooding Heathcliff. However, while Wuthering Heights is a film of haunting emotions, this liaison between the respectable Charles and the outcast Sarah had little impact on me.

Apparently, the point of the movie (so I have read) seems to be not so much engaging the viewer emotionally as comparing love affairs from the two eras...the forbidden Victorian passions in sharp contrast to the not very passionate, sort of half bored, casual affair of the modern actors. Yes, the contrast is apparent here, so in this goal, it succeeded. Nevertheless, I would have greatly preferred emotional engagement. I didn't read the novel of the same name, but understand the film within a film approach was meant to replace the narrator's role in the book. If so, this technique may have been clever and artistic, but left me personally cold and simply detached from it all.
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Top quality performances
Alaia31 October 2004
Fantastic performance from Jeremy Irons, and of course Meryl Streep is flawless. 1981's interpretation of a period piece, contrasted with '81 present day. I am a huge fan of late 70s and early 80s movie conventions for quality movies - slower pace, more left to the viewer to discern. Brilliant. If you like period pieces and amazing acting, you will like this.

If you like Meryl Streep I also recommend Sophie's Choice and Silkwood. Jeremy Irons' debut was in Brideshead Revisited (avail on Netflix), an early 80s miniseries -- worth checking out, he's great in it. Another good specimen of his acting is in Reversal of Fortune. But there are lots more.
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Brooding, classy, evocative melodrama.
Howlin Wolf30 June 2005
... Anyone who's read my earlier review of "Damage", and disagrees with the feelings I expressed there; THIS is how Jeremy Irons should be utilized to portray destructive longing! It's a bodice-ripper without the ripping going on - all internalised, *raw* emotion. It's gorgeously shot, too; and Streep makes good on her reputation in a poignant showing. I've never read "Wuthering Heights", but I couldn't help thinking of Heathcliff and the moors, nevertheless...

It reminded me of 'The Hours', only it has a less 'studied' feel to it. The realities of 'social exclusion' really hit home, but thanks to the great performances, we don't doubt the extremes shown. Love renders all other concerns as 'insignificant', when you're in its grip.

This isn't the kind of film I would normally like; but in my quest to sample as much that is acclaimed as possible, I ended up here. I'm glad I did. If you have romance in your soul, this is apt to get you, inside. I only left this out of my 250 list because due to being something of a 'grinch', I tend to side with LIFE'S version of how things end, rather than literatures; but oh well... !
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Good acting can't save a boring script
preppy-34 August 2009
Charles Henry Smithson (Jeremy Irons) falls in love with outcast Sarah (Meryl Streep) in 1800s England. In the present day Mike (Irons again) and Anna (Streep again) are doing a movie about their tragic love affair and the movie jumps back and forth between the stories.

Incredibly dull movie. Streep and Irons are fantastic in all their roles but the script is dull, the movie drags on forever and the parallels between the two stories are pointless and groaningly obvious. I have nothing against slowly paced movies (I love "Howard's End" and "Room With a View") as long as they're interesting. This isn't. You don't care one bit for any of these characters or their situations. I caught this snoozer in a theatre and had trouble staying awake! This is one of those "prestige" movies that critics fall all over themselves praising but audiences stay away from. This was a bomb at the box office and has (rightfully) been forgotten. This gets a 2 just for Streep and Irons.
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Grossly underrated
james-baring17 October 2008
This film is worth a far higher rating than it has been given on the main page. though the reviews are much more appreciative. The casting and acting is perfection, that has been noted, as has been the script. The music is fine in its own right and superbly crafted into the action. The photography is probably the finest ever achieved in this category of film, with the contrast between the period and modern scenes ingeniously used to remove any confusion while at the same time avoiding false or exaggerated characterization.

Most remarkable of all is the sound track, both in regard to the voices and the background sound. I am stunned that none of the reviewers even mentioned it and I am coming to the conclusion that the human race is developing damaged audio organs. The average film these days, even those from the biggest studios and with the biggest budgets, suffer from utterly unrealistic voice registration. This is probably due to either modern miniature microphones placed in places other than where the viewer is in their imagination, or in sound added afterwards with an attempt at a simulated environment. In either case the result is usually terrible, with the acoustics making no sense at all with the picture being shown. As a result the atmosphere, for those with ears not destroyed by ipods or walkmen, is destroyed and the film has no presence or reality. This has reached such a pitch that it appears people no longer notice it and directors no longer care.

In this film the acoustics and sound registry are a work of technical mastery and, along with the photography, script, editing and acting must give it a place amongst the top 10 of all time. 6.8/10 is an absurd rating. I give it 10/10. Where would you take a point off?
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With hindsight, a good film
octomancer20 May 2004
I have only seen this film once, about 20 years ago, when I was in my mid teens. It intrigued me then, but went completely over my head. I could dimly perceive grand themes in it, but couldn't bring them into focus. A few years ago a friend gave me a John Fowles book to read, "The Magus" and this caused me to re-evaluate this film entirely. For me, the story's strength does not lie in anything definite. It's main themes are suggestion and allegory. The creative role of the mind in human perception is very clearly depicted in "The Magus" and this is central to TFLW too. The 2 central characters, in their modern guises are caught up in this, as the audience is expected to be. Perhaps there is no central message to be understood ... maybe a viewer should just be delighted by the parallels which are revealed by telling these 2 stories in this way ...
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Awarding my first 2. Spoilers below!
speedo5825 January 2011
Warning: 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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Intriguing and compelling piece of British heritage drama
jph96 May 2000
Written in the sixties, John Fowles novel reflects back upon literature and language of Thomas Hardy, and as with Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd, Fowles uses a faux ending as part of a homage to the great writer. Karel Riesz's clever direction exploits the contrast of past and contemporary setting by the the story taking place in British Heritage film using a classic script for it's basis. The parallel continues with the book's plot being followed on-screen - once again a clever parallel and parody of the Heritage Genre that the film belongs to. Once again, in true Hardean style, one ending does not fit with the overall tone of the film making the true ending even more crushing. A true contemporary classic.
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No Surprise This Was A Box-Office Bomb
ccthemovieman-113 December 2007
After all the hype, this was a big disappointment. I have since learned to read between the lines with a bunch of national critics, knowing their cultural bias. This story is full of "postmodern" bias and is one of those film-within-a film stories. A lot of times, those are clever but if they aren't done right, they are big bombs and movie-goers are turned off. That's what happened here, and one reason you see so few reviews on a film that national critics - naturally - loved. It didn't do well at the box office, either.

If you watch a lot of movies, you will see and hear things in TFLW that are familiar, such as Meryl Streep with another foreign accent, plugs for evolution and cheap shots against Christians, digs against the Victorian Era and huzzahs for anything "liberated," etc. You get the picture. The agenda is the normal left-of-center.

A person portrayed as downright nasty in this movie is one who believes in God, reads the Bible and is always shown with a cross around her neck. The leading man, however, the good guy, is a disciple of Charles Darwin, the man who brought us the enlightening theory of evolution.

This is just one example of what I am talking about in the above paragraph.

The story involves a bunch of real life elitist actors playing themselves - talking, rehearsing their lines, sleeping together, etc. - in the Victorian Age and making it all look grand. Speaking of that, the film does offer some beautiful photography.

As for Streep, a wonderful actress, this was her debut and she went on to star in films with Danish accents, Australian, Polish and a host of others. I've always liked Jeremy Irons, too, who is the male star in here. I have no problems with the acting, cinematography and the story - it's the other prejudices that I am tired of seeing on film that makes one viewing of this movie enough.
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Possibly The best Meryl Streep film...
merylstreep6930 August 2003
Short and sweetly, The movie holds up surprisingly well for an early 80's film and the DVD is a must for those who haven't seen it since..

Meryl Streep plays two roles as Sarah, The French Lieutenant's Woman of the title and Anna, the actress playing Sarah. I recommend trying to find the novel written back in 1970, as it fills in alot of gaps in the character of Susan. Relatively quick paced, the story within a story(kind of like Adaptation)method is used well here and I highly suggest viewing this film for all "Streepies" out there( you know who you are).
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fr lt's woman
mossgrymk11 October 2020
Far be it from me, a septuagenerian Dodger fan, to criticize a Nobel Prize winner but it occurs to moi (pardon the Gallicism but the movie IS called "The FRENCH leftenant's woman) that if scenarist Harold Pinter had done half the job novelist John Fowles did in making his Victorian lovers come alive then he wouldn't have had to resort to gimmicks like a movie within a movie, set in different centuries, in a desperate try to infuse some interest in the Smithson/Woodruff relationship. Bottom line: Beautifully mounted and shot but empty at its core. Shoulda given the job to Ivory/Jhabvala instead. B minus.
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malcolmgsw4 March 2020
When I see that the screenplay is by Harold Pinter I approach with care as I simply cannot take to his work.Here he makes a perfect dogs dinner by constantly switching between the Victorian and contemporary story.Why he felt it necessary to do both is difficult to understand.It is a bore.
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The French Lieutenant's Woman
random_avenger2 August 2010
Two film actors named Anna and Mike (Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons) rehearse their roles for a Victorian period piece and have an affair with each other. Interspersed with the present day scenes are extensive clips from the finished version of the film they're working on: the love story of a gentleman named Charles and a poor woman Sarah who has lost her reputation after having been romantically linked to a French officer. Charles and Sarah, like Mike and Anna, are played by Irons and Streep.

The movie-within-a-movie structure makes it possible to examine the expressions of romance in very different eras that still mirror each other in many ways. While the Victorian society is suffocating in its prim and proper moralizing, relationships are not necessarily easier in the liberal modern era either, as it is always difficult to follow one's heart without hurting someone in the process.

Technically the film is well made, the historic sets and costumes look good and Streep and Irons are convincing in their double roles. Especially the eponymous Sarah character is full of tragic mystery and understandably carries the film whenever she is on. The pace is slow and peaceful, allowing the romances to develop without haste. In the end the Victorian story gets more attention and is probably what the film is best remembered for, but the present day romance is a tale worth telling too. In any case, I recommend the film for any fan of romantic cinema – it's essentially two romances in one.
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