The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)

KAREL REISZ

Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BBBB

United Kingdom, 1981.  Juniper Films.  Screenplay by , based on the novel by .  Cinematography by .  Produced by .  Music by .  Production Design by .  Costume Design by .  Film Editing by .  Academy Awards 1981.  Golden Globe Awards 1981.  

Two stories are woven into one in this intelligent adaptation of John Fowles’s novel, one about contemporary actors and the other the film that they are making. In the film-within-the-film, Jeremy Irons plays a well-to-do gentleman who becomes obsessed with a strange woman (Meryl Streep at her most ghostly) whom he spies standing at the end of a pier, waiting for her lover to return. He threatens his status as a gentleman, not to mention his relationship with his fiance, by becoming involved in this misunderstood woman’s life and her tragic plight. Switch back to modern day, where actress Streep is having an affair with co-star Irons but not being very forthcoming about her emotions or where she sees the relationship going. The classic story is really the one that this film hangs on, with the second tale being merely a conceptual frame, but both are acted impeccably by the leads and scripted with terrific dialogue by Harold Pinter. The sets and costumes are beautiful, the music score unforgettably haunting, but there is an element of passion missing.  Streep is divine in her first lead role but she was to get much better in the years to come, and her performance is sometimes a bit too perfect to the point of being a bit theatrical (and it’s never clear whether or not that’s Streep the actress or Streep the actress playing the actress that is responsible for this).

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