The Bridges of Madison County: Deluxe Edition Review

The one indispensable ingredient of all great love stories is loss. Without the prospect of loss, there can be nothing at stake, and without that, the romance means nothing to us. The loss doesn’t need to be irretrievable – there are great love stories with happy endings such as Much Ado About Nothing and Jane Eyre - but the possibility of losing happiness has to be there, even if the odds finally become favourable. Many of the greatest love stories on film have finally succumbed to loss, creating endings which echo in our own lives long after the movie has ended, whether it’s Bogart giving up Bergman in Casablanca or Celia Johnson running onto the platform in despair in Brief Encounter

The Bridges Of Madison County is all about the things left behind when love goes away but its secret, and perhaps the reason for its success, is that it’s lost love from long ago, exhumed and viewed through a prism of memory, heightening and intensifying four single days when a woman believes that it might be possible to break out of her life into something extraordinary. Bathed in the golds of autumn, it is wrenchingly nostalgic but also entirely up-to-date in its emotional palate, telling a story which is as relevant now as it was back in the Sixties and probably will be a hundred years from now.

The novel, however, was appalling. As one of the worst works of popular fiction I’ve ever read, it should have made a terrible film - sentimental, trite and totally fake. Robert James Waller’s prose achieves the difficult trick of being simultaneously overripe and hopelessly ossified. The fact that Clint Eastwood's film version is not only not terrible, but actually very good, is some kind of miracle, one attributable to his impeccable taste as a director, the subtle performances he coaxes out of himself and Meryl Streep, and the intelligent screenplay by Richard La Grevanese. If it's not quite a Brief Encounter for the nineties, it is certainly in the same ball park as David Lean's classic weepie and, given another twenty years, the two films may well be spoken of in the same breath. They certainly share the same feeling of things unsaid and lives unfulfilled.

The book centres on the short lived, late 1960's romance between a Madison County housewife, Francesca Johnson (Streep) and a National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid (Eastwood). This encounter is described with hysterically funny grandiloquence by the author who clearly imagines himself to be some sort of late-middle aged Greek god. Eastwood wisely plays down the myth-making, wisely junking much of Kincaid’s dialogue, and adds a wraparound story set in the present day in which Francesca's children arrive to make arrangements for their mother's funeral. Aghast at her request to be cremated and to have her ashes thrown of a Madison County bridge, they begin to delve into her past and discover her story of a fleeting passion with the rugged photographer.

It all sounds too ghastly to be endured, but Eastwood and Streep make it work. On paper they seem an odd pairing, but both visually and emotionally they are a perfect couple. It’s chemistry of course, that mystical quality which can’t be explained but which has star-crossed unlikely couples ever since Fay Wray first encountered King Kong. Clint's increasing resemblance to a piece of granite sculpture gives him a dignity that even wandering around without a shirt on cannot spoil, and Streep makes her downtrodden housewife both believable and surprisingly funny. There's a spark in her eyes, and a quick wit in her dialogue that keeps the movie on its toes when the extended romantic interludes scored to Johnny Hartman blues numbers threaten to slow it down to a crawl.

These two screen legends work together beautifully, and this is yet another example of how Eastwood flourishes when paired with strong actresses – he’s been at his best working with the likes of Jessica Walter, Shirley McLaine, Genevieve Bujold and Hilary Swank. Eastwood and Streep are totally convincing as two people who are ageing, weighed down with the sadness of life and the knowledge of all the unfulfilled hopes they had when they were young. In comparison, none of the other actors make much of an impression, which is something inbuilt in the material, although Jim Haynie has a transcendent moment towards the end when, as Francesca's husband, he apologises for not making her dreams come true.

It's a sentimental story, naturally, but the film does not wallow in the sentiment, keeping a hard edge by acknowledging that Francesca has as much to lose if she goes off with her lover as she would by staying with her husband. Eastwood also refuses to provide regular unnecessary tear-jerking intervals - until, that is, the climax when he goes for broke with a genuinely beautiful, heart rending scene that is fully the equal of any classics from the "Golden Age" of studio filmmaking. Francesca, having lost Robert, sees him standing in the rain and, for once, Eastwood lets all his emotions come out in his acting as the raindrops drip down his face as if he was embalmed in tears. The rueful smile he gives her makes you believe, just for a moment or two, that she might actually get out of the car and go to him but it’s an illusion. But those few moments are unforgettable as Francesca toys with the door handle and her dreams seem tantalisingly near for one last time.

It’s very much an actors’ film although the beautiful location photography makes it a pleasure to watch. But Eastwood's camera stays close to the two main characters, reflecting their own infatuation with one another and encircling them as they flirt before moving in to capture the moment of infatuation. Although the film is often pretty in the postcard sense, the settings are always subordinate to character, as opposed to, say, The Horse Whisperer, where the film grinds to a halt as we admire the picturesque countryside. Indeed, although the settings are lovely, there is also a shrewd picture of a Middle American small town full of double standards and repressive traditions.

Jack N. Green's photography is, as I said above, excellent - and his interiors have subtle shadings reminiscent of the work of Bruce Surtees, who was Eastwood's DP for a number of years. Lennie Niehaus, aided by Eastwood himself, provides a pleasant, piano based music score - although it's no match for the Rachmaninov in Brief Encounter, a film that obviously influenced this one. Actually, the two films are very similar in tone if not in content, and one scene in Bridges is highly reminiscent of Lean's movie, as Francesca and Robert's last day together is ruined by a garrulous female acquaintance. Best of all, though, is the dialogue. The off-beat charm that Richard La Grevanese brought to The Fisher King is present here, and he wisely chooses to make Kincaid a more taciturn and mysterious figure - which, of course, suits Eastwood's characteristic acting style.

Perhaps this is the sort of film that will be avoided by Eastwood's usual fans like the plague. But I think that would be a shame. This is an intelligent romantic film that can be enjoyed by anyone, without any shame, and it's another demonstration that Clint is a much better actor than is usually admitted. In my experience, several hardened action movie addicts came to mock and stayed to weep, so give it a try and you might be surprised. Dismissed as a "chick flick" upon release, it's actually worthy of a much wider audience. However, I hope I don’t’ contradict myself by saying that this is one of those films that generally means more to a slightly older audience, dealing as it does with ageing, regret and second chances. The more life experience you bring to the film, the more it will repay you. That’s one of the reasons why it’s a movie for the ages, surviving multiple viewings and meaning more as your years go by.

The Disc

The Bridges of Madison County has been released before on Region 1 in a barebones, full-screen edition. This new “Deluxe Edition” corrects the aspect ratio and adds some special features which are interesting, though far from comprehensive.

This is a lovely transfer of a beautifully photographed film. The anamorphic, progressive 1.85:1 image copes brilliantly with the rich colours of the locations and manages the subtle lighting of the interiors with ease. No problems with artifacting or excessive grain. The level of detail is sometimes hugely impressive, capturing things I hadn’t noticed before. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also very pleasing with dialogue eminently clear throughout and ambient sounds and music filling out the surrounds.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track from cinematographer Jack N. Green and editor Joel Cox. It’s a pleasant listen with Cox in particular providing some valuable insight into the editing process. But otherwise, there’s nothing particularly new about their observations and the amount of self-congratulation is a little embarrassing – as is their obeisance towards Clint about whom saying anything unpleasant seems somehow not done.

This tone of good-natured blarghh continues throughout a 30 minute featurette which documents the making of the film. We don’t learn much except that Eastwood shoots his movies very quickly and that everyone had a great time. However, virtually everyone involved in interviewed and there are pleasant comments from Meryl Streep who appears to regard the film very favourably.

We also get the original, and surprisingly subtle, theatrical trailer and a “music video” for Doe Eyes, the love theme from the film.

The film has optional subtitles but the extra features do not.

9 out of 10
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