Saturday 19 March 2022

Movie Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

A romantic drama with parallel stories in two timelines, The French Lieutenant's Woman is visually gorgeous, but slow-paced and emotionally uninvolving.

In the seaside English village of Lyme, American actress Anna (Meryl Streep) and English actor Mike (Jeremy Irons) have the leading roles in a movie production filming a Victorian love story. Anna and Mike start an affair, which mirrors the film's events.

In the Victorian narrative, Miss Sarah Woodruff (Streep) is a fallen woman, with a sullied reputation of having slept with a french lieutenant who promptly abandoned her. Charles Henry Smithson (Irons) is a palaeontologist looking for fossils in the area. He proposes marriage to Ernestina Freeman (Lynsey Baxter), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist.

But once Charles sets eyes on Sarah, he is immediately smitten. They start seeing each other in secret, with Charles determined to uncover her story. Sarah secures employment as secretary to the crusty Mrs. Poulteney (Patience Collier), while Charles starts to doubt his commitment to Ernestina. He seeks the counsel of Dr. Grogan (Leo McKern) to better understand Sarah's melancholic state.

An adaptation of the John Fowles book with a script by Harold Painter, The French Lieutenant's Woman is successful at coherently capturing two separate but related tales of illicit passion. Director Karel Reisz deftly weaves Anna and Mike's modern-day affair through the more dominant Victorian-set story, and within 127 minutes both are rounded into viable dramas.

Despite the high quality production values, the pacing is slow and creeps into ponderous, even with twin stories competing for screen time. Several scenes in the Victorian story line add little to the narrative and could have been trimmed. But while the clocks tick slowly, the visual beauty is opulent. The cinematography by Freddie Francis is lush and lively, with plenty of outdoor filming animating a rustic rural England with rich greenery, vibrant town streets, and a wind-swept sea-side.

Although both couples grapple with the intensity of uncontrolled lust, unfortunately none of the four central characters emerge with credit, undermining the level of possible engagement. Sarah discloses little that can be trusted, and she emerges as primarily manipulative and happy to snare with victimhood. Charles is a prototypical weak male chasing after the image of distant beauty, willfully and woefully undermining all his future prospects. Anna and Mike fare worse, both of them shallow and looking for the on-set thrill with no rational plan for the post-filming future. 

While the characters are sometime infuriating and always less than empathetic, the performances are stellar. Meryl Streep excels in both roles, hiding thoughtful connivance behind tentative fragility as Sarah, and modernizing similar talents as Anna. Jeremy Irons is a perfect foil, love-struck and gullible in both eras.

The French Lieutenant's Woman exposes human frailties when love shrouds reason.The theme lacks inspiration, but is still presented with artistry.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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