The French Lieutenant's Woman Review

Considering that The French Lieutenant's Woman is an adaptation of one of the most literary and unfilmable books imaginable, it's not at all bad. Obviously scaled to be an award winning "event" film, it actually succeeds best as a poignant romantic melodrama with gorgeous photography of Lyme Regis and some nice touches from an excellent cast. Unfortunately, a key aspect of the film is an almost complete misfire which tends to place it in the interesting failure category.

John Fowles' novel, a triumph of literary gamesmanship, is a Victorian romantic tragedy filtered through a modern sensibility. Each chapter is headed by quotations from Nineteenth century writers stretching from Hardy to Marx or facts from Victorian social and sexual history. More significantly, the omniscient narrator keeps breaking off from the story to comment on events, supply background information on the period or, most famously, to offer two endings, one happy and one tragic. In short, it's about as heavily written as a novel can get and it's impossible to think how you could adapt it faithfully without losing what makes it interesting. The bare bones of the plot are Hardy-lite, even edging towards Mills and Boon territory, but the complexity of the characters is a world away from normal romantic fiction. Fowles focuses with ferociously clear vision on sexual and religious hypocrisy, constantly turning subtext into master narrative and vice versa. It is the way the novel is constructed and written that make it great, not the plotting.

Obviously, this is a problem for any adapter, but if anyone could do something with it surely Harold Pinter would be the man. No stranger to difficult structure after his scripts for Losey and his wonderful play "Betrayal" (beating Memento to the backwards plot line by 21 years), he elects to present the story in a dual time-line. On the one hand we have the plot of the book. Charles Smithson (Irons), a Darwinian scientist in Victorian Lyme Regis, sees Sarah Woodruff (Streep) standing at the end of the Cobb in rough weather and attempts to persuade her to come down before she is injured. He becomes obsessed with her, discovering that she is called "The French Lieutenant's...Woman" (or Whore), following an allegedly sexual liason which left her the subject of gossip and pining for the return of her lover. His obsession gradually ruins his life, destroying both his engagement to the eligible Ernestina (Baxter) and his reputation as a gentleman. On the other hand, we have a modern-day plot in which the actors playing Charles and Sarah - called Mike and Anna - conduct an illicit affair of their own. This should have allowed for some comment on the differences between the periods, some irony about the sexual conventions of the times and, importantly for lovers of the book, the famous double ending.

The Victorian scenes are beautifully lit by the great Freddie Francis and they have an urgency and passion which are immediate and gripping. Full of memorable images - Sarah at the end of the Cobb or sketching her grief from her reflection, the lovers coupling in a seedy hotel room by candlelight, the beautiful closing scene on Lake Windermere - it has a momentum which carries it over the fact that the plot is largely melodramatic cliche. Streep and Irons play beautifully together and they have a potent chemistry. There's the usual unfortunate awareness of how technically perfect Streep's accent is but in this case it doesn't really matter because of the visual strength of her performance. She is Pre-Raphaelite beauty incarnate as Sarah Woodruff and has never been more achingly gorgeous. Jeremy Irons is equally good as Charles, using the slightly remote quality that has often been infuriating in other roles as part of the character. It's also good to see a fine selection of British character actors, including Leo McKern and, all too briefly, the great Peter Vaughan. The Victorian scenes are a simplified version of the novel with the part played by Sam, Charles's manservant, drastically reduced. This does mean that some events which are made clear in the novel are rendered needlessly elliptical, notably the reasons behind Sarah leaving Exeter before Charles gets back from London. This isn't a major drawback but it is unnecessary, especially when some more complex aspects of the novel are ignored. However, there is a genuinely powerful tragic inevitability here which does, appropriately enough, nod towards Hardy and isn't disgraced by the comparison. There is a notable lack of subtlety in places - Mrs Poulteney (Patience Collier) could come from a Victoria Wood sketch - but, generally, this part of the adaptation is sensitive and well observed.

But something goes wrong somewhere and it's the modern scenes which are the problem. I say "modern" even though the 1981 period fads are almost as quaintly historical as the 19th century ones. Meryl Streep seems ill at ease as Anna, the actress portraying Sarah, and there is an emotional distance to her performance here which simply doesn't work for the story. We need to believe that Anna is an emotional woman whose affair with Mike, playing Charles, is something passionate. Streep merely looks like a tired secretary looking forward to her tea break. Jeremy Irons does a little better, largely because his dialogue is more interesting but he still fails to convey obsessive lust/love for Anna - when Penelope Wilton enters, playing his wife, you would be forgiven for thinking that you've strayed into an early prototype for "Ever Decreasing Circles". The modern story is meant to provide one of the two endings from the novel, but the emotional impact of the two stories is so wildly different that we would barely register that they are meant to be parallel at all were it not for the casting. This seriously reduces the effectiveness of the film. The novel, for all its postmodern cleverness, works damn well as a romantic tragedy. The film doesn't quite work on that level and it isn't clever enough to divert attention from its narrative flaws.

That's not to dismiss it though. It's very well put together by Karel Reisz, a director who is appears to be virtually forgotten but who made some of the most interesting films of the sixties and seventies; his 1978 Vietnam veteran drama Who'll Stop The Rain is some kind of masterpiece. He nearly pulls this film off and even the flawed 1981 scenes are sometimes interesting especially the end of shoot party at which we see the cast in modern clothes. Pinter's screenplay is intelligent from line to line and he respects the novel without enshrining it. His other adaptations have frequently been much better though - consider his work on The Go-Between and Accident, both from difficult source novels, or his wonderful unfilmed Proust screenplay. But when a film which is about desperate passion leaves you rather cold and uninvolved, it's obvious that it hasn't really worked. It looks ravishing and is sometimes very impressive but, as a whole, it is disappointing.

The Disc

This is a bare-bones disc from MGM but it has good enough technical merits to make it a purchase worth considering.

The picture quality is surprisingly good. I use the word "surprisingly" because MGM have wreaked havoc on some of my favourite films from the same era - notably the poor transfers on The Long Riders and Heaven's Gate. The film has a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer which looks very nice for the most part. The colours, beautifully chosen from a muted palate by Freddie Francis, look stunning and the picture is generally sharp and clean. There isn't much grain and the only real problem is the artifacting which becomes slightly distracting during the darker scenes.

The soundtrack replicates that of the original film, being in mono. It's actually very good of its kind, being crisp and well balanced, making the most of Carl Davis's deliriously over the top, but guiltily enjoyable score.

The only extra is the original theatrical trailer. Clearly scouting for Oscar nominations, it reeks of middle class notions of quality which will either strike you as entirely appropriate or hilariously bourgeoise.

There are 16 chapter stops and static menus.

A flawed but very interesting film has received an unexceptional but very competent DVD release. Well worth considering for fans of period drama and worshippers at the Meryl Streep shrine.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 18:22:57

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