Although I am almost 56, I had never seen the 1981 film adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (based on a novel by John Fowles) until last night, December 9, 2016. My wife wanted to see it, so I dialed it up on our Amazon Prime TV. There are some reveals and spoilers in what follows below, so if you have not seen The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, then just trust me and first watch it and read no further right now and if you care return to this review afterward.
I found the movie to be unexpectedly brilliant. I found myself taking away a wide range of thoughts, impressions and ideas from the movie. It’s an old enough movie that many as not have seen it. If not, I recommend it.
I read reviews and analysis of the novel and movie the next day. I found almost none to be my takeaways from the story in any review or analysis (although I didn’t read them ALL as the late George Carlin might say) so I make no claim to originality here.
Meryl Streep in her modern role as Anna the actress is a woman who is in danger of her real life being subsumed by the power of the role she is playing with Mike in the “movie within a movie”. Mike in his modern role as Mr. Charles Henry Smithson has already been subsumed into a slightly demented loss of his grip on reality by his moving scenes with Anna in making of the film within a film.
In one scene on an enclosed porch where they are rehearsing their roles, he calls Anna “Miss Woodruff” which scene I found very telling. He could have called her “Sarah” (her film first name), or Anna, (her real first name), but he chose “Miss Woodruff” highlighting her fictional marital status and her fictional role, in one fell swoop. In the ending, when Anna looks in the mirror in the darkened room which was the location of their fictional final scene, she in my opinion flashes a sudden emergency realization that she is in grave danger of allowing the natural powerful passions of the making of a deeply romantic film to spill over into the reality of her real life. This moment comes after Mike has professed his love openly to her over the phone the previous day: “I love you.” says Mike twice to an Anna who is on the phone in the same room with her actual love partner, a Frenchman (the not-so-subtle joke that Anna’s love interest IS actually a Frenchman is fabulous. It adds to the sense of unreal blurring of the movie she is filming with her “real” life). Her flight from Mike at the cast party is powerful and believeable. Although women are generally perceived as the “emotional gender” actually they possess an arsenal of stunningly good judgement and the ability to divorce themselves from fantasy when that fantasy crosses the line into threatening all that they have achieved and currently enjoy.
TFLW also accomplishes an amazing double juxtaposition of contrasting cause and effect of the moral climates of the Victorian era of Charles and Sarah vs the modern era of Mike and Anna. I think that the regressions of the Victorian era are shown to paradoxically push Sarah and Charles ultimately together in one of the famed “alternate endings” of the story. However, the very intense serial freedoms of the modern era that Mike and Anna live in allows them to make love during their relationship as leading man and leading woman of the film even as Anna’s Frenchman husband and Mike’s British wife as bohemian partners wincingly silently tolerate this because as artists they accept the idea that the making of the movie and the intense love scenes between the ACTORS Mike and Anna cannot hardly but help spilling over into the actual hearts and passions of the actors. To wit Mikes wife and Anna’s husband play very unsung (and afaik totally uncredited) brilliant supporting roles as embers of the Community of Artists who face and embrace passion. And these two supporting actors do an amazing job in just a minute or two of screen time showing the mix of understanding of the situation with a nagging fear that the movie passion of Mike and Anna could spiral out of control into reality. “Yes…” they both say unspoken in their own minds to their real-life actor spouses, “…you are overcome by the passions of making this movie. But when the movie is done filming, so also is the valid justification for your passions with each other” think the exasperated, worried and tolerant spouses of these artists. I will just add the the movie Mr. And Mrs. Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie is an example where the movie passion did not only blur into reality but actually became reality. Not the first time actors jilted their “real-life” partners to allow the movie love to become fully real.
Which brings me to one other point which is TFLW can arguably be called endlessly corny, trite and hackneyed. I can see how that charge could be leveled. I think that the movie does the best job I have seen yet of revealing how most of what moves us most deeply is corny and trite and that the fine line between corny content being corny and corny content being a great and moving experience is a very thin line indeed. Nowhere in TFLW did I begin laughing out loud. But we know of similar movies where the intended drama is mistakenly and unintendedly hilarious and uproariously funny. TFLW is not so imho. TFLW is a retelling over and over of what moves us and what we long for most of us and strive to find, dramatic, moving, love and life. But to be sure there is a very strong hint of an in-joke a certain hilarity to the drama that is lurking just below the surface of the film; after you watch it you at some point feel like you should have been laughing at the trite drama of it all, and yet I did not laugh at it, and many others did not either. It was nominated for many awards. People liked it. Critics recognized it. Nominators nominated it. Somehow it keeps the cornyness at bay, like a sleeping dog who misses out on a good bark.
The very freedom of the modern era allows Anna and Mike to allow their overwhelming feelings created by the making of the movie to light up and burn naturally like fire logs in a fireplace, and then settle down to embers and eventually go out when the filming of the movie has ended (though with some emotional difficulty to be sure). By contrast, the extreme repression of the Victorian era causes all aspects of the relationship between Sarah and Charles to be exaggerated out of all proportion in an almost Wuthering-Heights-esque level of massive drama, and really leaves Charles and Sarah with no choice but to let their passion to some degree destroy their fictional social lives. Ironically, the freedoms of the modern era devalue the commitment and intensity of love and passion, but at the same time modern morality creates the conditions whereby TRUE morality can thrive (Anna and Mike ultimately are fulfilled with their brief filmmaking-driven affair but in the end, led mostly by Anna’s moral compass, return rightly to their real life spouses and allow those spouses the intellectual out of chalking up the affair of Mike and Anna as a necessary homage and ingredient for the making of ‘ART’ – the movie – so that the real passion and artistic passion fueled and blurred the boundaries of the actions on all levels of the film). Another way of saying this is that our modern era highlights and emphasizes forgiveness and understanding, while the Victorian era emphasized duty, intent, conduct and propriety, and largely eschewed forgiveness. I think the modern world with its stance of forgiveness indicates that despite what we might think at times, that there is, as Richard Feynman once wrote “…a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn’t get confined or permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.” (and woman I would add).
That Streep and Irons were able to convey this successfully in the movie is truly a tribute to a great work by two great-capable actors. As I may have mentioned, I haven’t liked all of Streep’s filmography, and it’s interesting to me to note that this one which I found in total to be a masterpiece on so many levels, was one with which Meryl Streep herself was not entirely happy.
I think alot of credit for what I like about the film goes to the director, producers, and cinematographers. The movie really it seems to me very deftly shifts from Victorian to modern scenes.
I think this movie meets better than any other movie I have ever seen what my father always said was the main criteria for movie greatness: the “willing suspension of disbelief”. Here we have not only a movie within a movie, but also each time the movie shifted back into the Victorian drama of Charles and Sarah, I was instantly absorbed in that drama. I had no after images or recall of Anna and Mike at all; I simply shifted immediately and totally to the movie inside a movie. In this era of Downton Abbey it was like a bunch of Downton Abbey episodes strung together, with no waiting until next week required; instant eagerly awaited and enjoyed gratification.
I’ll just wrap up my review of TFLW (1981) by commenting that the newer interpretation of Sherlock Holmes on BBC with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock has dabbled in similar time shifts and although quite different, still follows in the steps of that difficult tradition of the successful filmmaking art of time travel and era shifts. I grudgingly recognize what Cumberbatch & Co. have aspired to do with some admiration for their lofty artistic goals, despite the fact I am a huge fan of the late Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes which I consider to be without peer, but I digress. Another movie worth watching that dabbles in the movie-within-a-movie genre (successfully I would say) is Lindsay Anderson’s “O Lucky Man” (1973) starring Malcolm McDowell, also available on Amazon Prime, and which also has interesting time-shift quirks to it as well. Oh and let us not forget Peter O’Toole, Steve Railsback, and Barbara Hershey in The Stunt Man (1980), another great example of the movie-within-a-movie genre. And no, I am not paid by Amazon Prime to write this. But I am a big fan of the Amazon Fire TV service. It is amazing to put it mildly. We love it.
I strongly recommend taking an evening to watch The French Lieutenant’s Woman, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons (1981). You can get it on Amazon Prime. Preferably watch it while sitting next to a fire that grows then knowingly calms down to embers towards the end of the film.
And does anyone know who the uncredited actors were who played. Mike’s modern British wife, and also the actor who played Anna’s French love interest partner. He is only shown briefly in the scene where Mike calls Anna at home to profess his love. These two patient spouses their real names I would like to know; I thought the were spectacularly good in their brief appearances in TFLW (1981).
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