The French Lieutenant's Woman Reviews
Beautiful scenery, beautiful music, not just one, but two interesting stories.
I think the "Meryl Streep is exotic and beautiful and fascinating" phase finally came to an end in 1995 with [i]Bridges of Madison County[/i]. Where, yes, she's a depressed housewife, but a beautiful and fascinating one. Maybe not exotic. But for something like twenty years, there seems to have been this weird belief that there was something about her that just made men fall all over themselves if she gave them a second glance, and I don't get it. It's not that I think she's unattractive, but even at her best-looking, I think she's maybe "wholesome." It's true that, at the time she seems to have first become a standard of female beauty, her male leads were generally best described as "interesting-looking." At [i]his[/i] best-looking, Dustin Hoffman was no Paul Newman. On the other hand, she was also paired in a movie with Robert Redford, so it's only generalities about any of it.
Here, she is Anna, an actress playing a character called Sarah. The actress is having an affair with an actor called Mike (Jeremy Irons), who is playing Charles Henry Smithson. Charles is of means enough so that he is able to merely putter about as a paleontologist. He is, however, engaged to Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter), a young woman whose father's estate, when she--his only child--inherits it--will pay for a lot of poking about among the rocks. They are all in a small town in rural England. Sarah is believed to have been the mistress, some time ago, of a French officer. Since it's the nineteenth century, that doesn't go well for her. At first, Charles just feels kindly toward her, but he rapidly becomes obsessed, though he does not himself seem aware of it. Mike, despite being married, is also in love with Anna, who is also married. We cut back and forth between the story of the actors and the story of the characters, which of course show considerable similarity.
Oh, as I've said before, I'll believe Jeremy Irons acting obsessed with just about anyone or anything. This was his second movie, so that persona wasn't as well developed as it would become in later years, but his reaction has never been a thing to doubt. I know basically nothing about his personal life, but I can believe movies wherein he pursues someone or something to his own destruction, and Meryl Streep is not the least probable of the lot. What's more, as here, he seldom seems in control of his lot. It isn't just that all relationships between people really require the participation of both parties to go any particular way. It's that Jeremy Irons frequently seems in movies to have ceded his share of the responsibility to the other party. He knows how he'd rather things went, but he is so caught up inside his own head that he can't make his wishes understood outside it. He may not quite know what's going on, but he doesn't expect to, either.
It's an interesting concept for a movie, and it is interesting to me how they managed to do two of the three endings that are apparently options in the book. (I haven't read it, but apparently, it encourages us to pick our favourite.) Without giving anything away, let us merely say that Anna and Mike get an ending as well as Sarah and Charles. They must have one. The story isn't complete until all four of its characters reach some sort of conclusion, whether they're satisfied by it or not. And it's something in the nature of a Jeremy Irons character that he will probably never be satisfied, even if he's getting what he thinks he wants. Is Anna who and what Mike wants? Is Sarah who and what Charles wants? I'm not sure either of them would know. I definitely don't think Charles has any way of knowing, given how few options he would have had in his life--though more than Sarah, and certainly more than Ernestina. Mike and Anna have had more chance, but I don't think Mike has a clear view on things anyway.
I'd heard the name of this movie before; it's one of the Meryl Streep movies that cemented her reputation, deserved or not, as an actress. She was nominated for an Oscar here, but she lost to Katharine Hepburn for [i]On Golden Pond[/i], her last. It was the only year they were both nominated. However, until today, I had no idea what the movie was actually about. I think I assumed, perhaps not unreasonably, that Jeremy Irons played the French lieutenant. I've seen him play a French character before, after all, and he is on all the posters. However, not only does the French lieutenant never appear onscreen, he almost doesn't matter. Dr. Grogan (Leo McKern) talks about Sarah's melancholia, but it only barely matters for the purposes of the story what caused it. What matters is that there is something in Sarah's past which controls her future with Charles. I would almost argue that Sarah herself, like the objects of obsession in most Jeremy Irons movies, is a MacGuffin. She is just something for him to ruin his life over.