The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

  • The actors were Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. World class.
  • The novel was written by John Fowles as a loving pastiche of his favorite 19th century romances. He took a bit of Swann's plight in Remembrance of Things Past and located it in Dorset, in the manner of Thomas Hardy. He stirred in a bit of Emily Bronte, characters chasing after one another in fog-shrouded landscapes, calling each other's names from too far away to hear over the ocean's roar, spying upon one another in the woods, and so forth.
  • The screenplay was written by Harold Pinter, one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, perhaps the greatest living practitioner of that dying art.
  • The music and photography support the feeling of anguished 19th century epic romance. Absolutely beautiful visuals.

Then why isn't this remembered as one of the timeless classics of the cinema?

Long story.

Oh, I know it sounds impressive to string together names like Pinter, Streep, Proust, Hardy, and Bronte, but I believe it was either Oscar Wilde or Casey Stengel who said "nothing exceeds like excess". The 19th century romantic novel was larger than life to begin with, and this movie kept expanding the genre to uber-Byronic proportions. 

Also, I think I might be violin-intolerant.

Imagine dialogue like:

"you were seen walking along the heath, not twice but thrice, my dear girl"

("gasps" and "oohs", and whispers from the servants)

"I shan't caution you further, miss, to confine your promenades to places suitable for a proper young lady" 

And that was in the 1980 section. (Rimshot!) In the Bronx. (Rimshot!). But I wanna tell ya .....


The plot(s) are as follows.

Charles, a proper British paleontologist (Irons) end up destroying his life after he sees Sarah, a mysterious black-shrouded woman (Streep), standing precariously upon a seaside pier during a storm. A mere glance backward from her is enough to get him to renounce his prior marriage proposal to a woman of high station, and follow the woman in black wherever life takes them, even though she may or may not be a whore. But the mysterious woman, after briefly loving him in moments both dear and passionate, and after causing him to renounce all his claims to respectability in society, simply disappears with no forwarding address. He begins to search for her, using up the last of his wherewithal.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a 20th century actor and actress (also Irons and Streep) are playing the parts of Charles and Sarah in a film being made of their lives, and the actors are having an affair behind the backs of their spouses.

The two stories are seamlessly interwoven. 19th century Streep walks through a door, and we see 20th century Streep walking through the door of her trailer. By a strange unexplained coincidence, some of the 20th century and 19th century scenes take place in the same house. (And that is unrelated to the filming locations!)  Unfortunately, Irons chose to play or was instructed to play the two characters almost identically, and the 20th century actor even has similar facial hair because he is playing the 19th century character in the film-within-a-film. This may or may not mean that Mike was repeating David's life, or that people don't really change over the centuries, or something. 

I don't know.

Or care.

The good news: one of the two stories has a happy ending, one has a sad ending. Perhaps there will be one there to satisfy you. 

By the way, while watching this, I realized that Irons is the official prototype for Joseph Fiennes. It seems to me that Fiennes the Younger has never played anything but a moony-eyed distraught lover infatuated with a woman he cannot have, a woman who belongs to another, usually someone powerful or important. Well, that represents Irons' entire career. Movie after movie of anguished looks, offering perfect love to a woman who doesn't return it or is unworthy of it. Sometimes there aren't even minor variations on the theme. The character of Charles in this faux-Proust story was so suited for Irons that he played the same story out in Proust-verité just two years later, in Swann in Love. (Swann gives up everything for the hooker he loves, although she seems not to return his love)

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • no features except a trailer

Does this all sound rather highbrow and precious for your taste? If so, I agree with your assessment. It is some seriously pretentious, over-the-top romanticism. Great ingredients don't guarantee a great stew, especially when too many are combined, because nothing exceeds like excess, and this film is excessive. 

Is it a poor movie? No, of course not. It's pretty frigging good. Hell, it was nominated for five Oscars. With so many fine ingredients, one may not contend it is bad. In certain circumstances you may love it. You may be a great fan of this type of film. If Wuthering Heights is on your top five list, then this is your kind of picture.

But it is as bad a film as such great ingredients are capable of producing.

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 3.5/4

  • Nominated for five Oscars. Pinter's adapted screenplay, Editing, Costumes, Art Direction, Streep 

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. Eight articles on file

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.6 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Very high on production values, but beware of crazed Byronic romanticism, straining violins, wind-blown moors, fog-bound forests, and dialogue bordering on parody.

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