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The French Lieutenant's Woman
The French Lieutenant's Woman
Actors: Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Hilton McRae, Emily Morgan, Charlotte Mitchell
Director: Karel Reisz
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama
R     2001     2hr 4min

OscarÂ(r) winners* Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons star as two separate pairs of lovers in this "jarring, engaging [and] beautifully visualized" film (Leonard Maltin). Embraced by audiences andcritics alikeand garnering five...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Hilton McRae, Emily Morgan, Charlotte Mitchell
Director: Karel Reisz
Creators: Freddie Francis, John Bloom, Geoffrey Helman, Leon Clore, Tom Maschler, Harold Pinter, John Fowles
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama
Sub-Genres: Indie & Art House, Love & Romance
Studio: MGM (Video & DVD)
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen,Anamorphic - Closed-captioned,Subtitled
DVD Release Date: 09/04/2001
Original Release Date: 01/01/1981
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/1981
Release Year: 2001
Run Time: 2hr 4min
Screens: Color,Widescreen,Anamorphic
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 10
MPAA Rating: R (Restricted)
Languages: English, French, Spanish
Subtitles: Spanish, French

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Movie Reviews

Film Acting At It's Best
A. Wolverton | Crofton, MD United States | 01/13/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)

"It's a real shame that so few people have seen this film. It is a hidden treasure. Streep and Irons play present-day actors who are making a film about two people having an affair in Victorian England. The actors themselves are also involved in an affair, making the story a sort of movie-within-a-movie. I have not read the Fowles novel, so I don't have any of the gripes that other reviewers have voiced. I can only tell you that the story, the performances, the settings, the cinematography and the writing are all first-rate. All connected with this film obviously took a lot of time and effort to make a visually stunning film. It still looks great 20 years after its release, and looks even better on DVD (despite the fact that the disc offers no extras except the theatrical trailer...oh well...). Even if you end up hating the story, I don't think anyone would complain about the superior performances by Irons and Streep. Possibly the reason this film has been largely forgotten is the timing. This film was released in 1981, a year or two before Streep's blow-you-away performance in 'Sophie's Choice.' That performance was so spectacular that many have forgotten just how good 'French Lt.' is. If you want to see one of the finest actresses of our time, Meryl Streep in 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' is a performance you will not want to miss."
"I have a freedom they cannot understand."
Themis-Athena | from somewhere between California and Germany | 03/03/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

""Outside of marriage, your Victorian gentleman could look forward to 2.4 f*cks a week," Mike (Jeremy Irons) coolly calculates after Anna (Meryl Streep) has read to him the statistics according to which, while London's male population in 1857 was 1 1/4 million, the city's estimated 80,000 prostitutes were receiving a total of 2 million clients per week. And frequently, Anna adds, the women thus forced to earn their living came from respectable positions like that of a governess, simply having fallen into bad luck, e.g. by being discharged after a dispute with their employer and their resulting inability to find another position.

This brief dialogue towards the beginning of this movie based on John Fowles's 1969 novel succinctly illustrates both the fate that would most likely have been in store for title character Sarah (Meryl Streep in her "movie within the movie" role), had she left provincial Lyme Regis on Dorset's Channel coast and gone to London, and the Victorian society's moral duplicity: For while no virtues were regarded as highly as honor, chastity and integrity; while no woman intent on keeping her good name could even be seen talking to a man alone (let alone go beyond that); and while marriage - like any contract - was considered sacrosanct, rendering the partner who deigned to breach it an immediate social outcast, all these rules were suspended with regard to prostitutes; women who, for whatever reasons, had sunk so low they were regarded as nonpersons and thus, inherently unable to stain anybody's reputation but their own.

Appearances would have it that Sarah, too, is just such a woman - however, appearances can be deceptive; and herein lies the starting point of the story's social criticism: Realizing that once society has unjustifiedly placed her in that position, nothing she does will ever wipe away the mark of disgrace she wears as "the scarlet woman of Lyme," Sarah seeks strength in her very role as a pariah; trying to find a liberty not allowed to women of "good" society who are bound by the era's moral prerogatives; and to create a space for herself where she is untouchable because it is too far beyond the accepted social boundaries. In this, she resembles Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne (who however, unlike Sarah, actually had committed the adultery she was accused of). But Sarah's attempt to salvage at least a fraction of her sense of self dramatically fails when she is discharged by conservative old Mrs. Poulteney (Patience Collier) for "exhibiting her shame" by having been seen - against her employer's express prohibition - on an undercliff overlooking the sea across which her supposed suitor, the French lieutenant to whom she owes her less-than-charitable epithet and reputation, disappeared, never to return. Desperate, she literally throws herself at the feet of Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons), who although recently engaged to local merchant Freeman's daughter Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter) has taken more than just a slight interest in her, and who to her has thus become the proverbial white knight in shining armor. Charles in turn, unable to contain his infatuation with Sarah, casts aside the well-meaning counsel of physician Dr. Grogan (Leo McKern) (who considers Sarah's condition a classic case of "obscure melancholia" and would like to see her committed to an asylum) and breaks his engagement with Ernestina, thus incurring social shame himself, to be free for Sarah ... only to find her gone when he returns to take her home.

Faced with the impossibility of creating a screenplay from a novel set in the Victorian Age but told from a 20th century perspective, interspersed with the author's frequent modern-day commentary, in order to maintain that duality, acclaimed playwright Harold Pinter opted for a "movie within a movie" scenario, allowing modern-day actors Mike and Anna to give the commentary provided by Fowles himself in the book. But more than that, Anna and Mike are also a foil for Sarah and Charles in that they are engaged in an extramarital affair; and while late 20th century morality is obviously different from that of the Victorian Age, they, too, must decide what is to become of their romance. And in both cases, it is Sarah/Anna who ultimately makes the decision: In Fowles's novel, one that invites Charles to respond and whose outcome will lastly depend on his response (the author provides two different conclusions, leaving it up to his readers to determine the one most convincing to them); but in the the two actors's case, Anna presents Mike with a fait-accompli, contrasting with the end of Sarah's and Charles's story in the movie.

Sublimely capturing the story's gothic atmosphere with its candlelit rooms, stormy nights and a haunted woman who - particularly when first seen standing at the edge of a quay, oblivious to the winds and raging waves around her - appears more like a ghost than a human being, "The French Lieutenant's Woman" is perfectly cast with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons in the dual roles of Sarah/Anna and Charles/Mike: While outwardly quite different (Anna is upbeat but rational, Sarah passionate and vulnerable), both women ultimately find strength within themselves, whereas both men are sensitive and generally quieter, although Charles especially is Sarah's passionate equal once his feelings are stirred. Scored by Carl Davis and also boasting a strong supporting cast - including appearances by Hilton McRae (Charles's manservant Sam), Emily Morgan (Ernestina's maid Mary), Colin Jeavons (the vicar who, attempting to help Sarah, introduces her to Mrs. Poulteney), Gerard Falconetti (Anna's husband Davide) and Penelope Wilton (Mike's wife Sonia) - "The French Lieutenant's Woman" won a Golden Globe for Meryl Streep (Best Actress) and several British awards, but none of its five Oscar nominations (Best Actress, Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design and Editing - Jeremy Irons unfairly didn't even earn a "Best Actor" nomination). Yet, this is a compelling production, bringing to life Fowles's complex characters in a thoroughly convincing, poignant fashion; and sure to leave a lasting impression.

Also recommended:
The French Lieutenant's Woman
Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
Moll Flanders: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (Penguin Classics)
Madame Bovary (Bantam Classics)
Anna Karenina (Penguin Classics)
Effi Briest (Penguin Classics)
The Hours
Brideshead Revisited (25th Anniversary Collector's Edition)"
"It was as if her torture had become her delight."
Mary Whipple | New England | 10/13/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Harold Pinter's screenplay of John Fowles's novel, combined with Karel Reisz's direction, creates a stunning vehicle for Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons as they bring an enigmatic 19th century love story to life. But this film is actually two love stories. Streep and Irons also play contemporary actors making a film of the 19th century love story, and their relationship clearly parallels the story they are filming. Sarah Woodruff (Streep), known as "the French Lieutenant's woman," is an outcast in mid-19th century Lyme Regis, where she lives, because she has broken the taboos of society. Needing work to stay alive, she must accept the stultifying strictures of Victorian society and work as a governess or lady's companion, or become a prostitute, the only other option open for a woman without an inheritance or family.

Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons), an amateur geologist and Darwinian in the early story, is the rather stuffy fiancé of Ernestina Freeman (Lynsey Baxter). Smithson becomes the only person offering to help Sarah when, concerned for her safety, he follows her out onto a slippery quay during a storm. Despite his engagement and the fact that Sarah keeps herself a mystery, he is increasingly drawn to her and wants to know her story. Meanwhile, Mike the actor (Irons) and Anna the actress (Streep) playing these parts in the film, are having an affair, each ignoring their marital obligations in their attempt to find excitement.

The cinematography (Freddie Francis) emphasizes the lush countryside, the untamed sea, and the seaside community, with its ancient buildings. Several dark interior scenes of second-rate hotels add emphasis to the precarious position of someone like Sarah who has loved too well and lost. Music (Carl Davis) sets the scene throughout the film--mournful music as Sarah walks the storm-washed quay followed by cheerful music as Irons goes in a carriage to visit his fiancée, mysterious music when Sarah and Charles are dealing with the mystery of the past, and sentimental violin music at the conclusion.

Streep (nominated for the Academy Award for her role) is stunning, portraying Sarah Woodruff as mysterious but emotionally vulnerable as she tries to control her own life. As the contemporary character, Streep is beautiful, sexy, and vulnerable. Irons is less effective, appearing distant and repressed in both roles, and the depth of his attraction for both Sarah and Anna does not seem very credible. Nevertheless, this is an fascinating film in the grand tradition, a beautifully filmed study of the interrelationship of love and freedom-two love stories with two appropriate endings. Mary Whipple
Book vs. Movie
jansings85 | Wisconsin United States | 04/12/2004
(3 out of 5 stars)

"Alternate endings, authorial interjections, primary source documents, epigraphs; just a few techniques John Fowles uses to turn his Darwinian novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman, into a unique resurrection of classic Victorian literature. With all of the literary devices that Fowles employs in his novel to make it-according to one reviewer-"so utterly compelling," it comes as no surprise that this novel does not adapt easily to the screen. In fact, the screenwriter, Harold Pinter, completely disregards the true intended nature of the aforementioned rhetorical strategies in his adaptation of the novel.
Instead of portraying these essential elements as Fowles wrote them, Pinter creates a "movie within a movie" by constructing a passionate affair that the actors portraying Sarah and Charles involve themselves in while filming the screen version of Fowles' novel. He then cleverly weaves the two stories-one taking place in the 1860s and '70s, the other in the late-1970s/early-1980s-in and out of each other. He does so in order to give the audience a sense of the comparing of times that Fowles produces by interjecting 1960s views-on subjects including politics, religion, and social customs-in the classic style of the Victorian novel. Pinter sees this as an opportunity to use both of the novels endings, as well-the "happy" ending for the screen lovers, and the more realistic for the "real" lovers. Despite the deliberate effort to make the endings seem as genuine as possible, the do not invoke in the audience the "Mystery of the True Ending" that the novel does. And by utilizing the double-romance technique, Pinter falls prey to time constraints.
Pinter realizes that he must sacrifice plot developments and some of the other devices that make this Fowles novel unique. For example, Pinter discards of Fowles' use of the epigraphs and primary documents (including case reports) that give The French Lieutenant's Woman its Darwinian flair. Again, Pinter hopes to achieve this sense of evolution and historicism by comparing the Victorian love story with the modern one, but for anyone that has read the novel, the film just seems to lack that "something." Pinter also cuts what many readers consider key plot points from the story. This makes grasping character motivations very difficult, despite the obvious attention to detail given to keeping the dialogue consistent with that in the novel. For example, not a single frame of the film mentions Charles' uncle and the fact that Charles will no longer inherit his uncle's estate. Nor does the film address the lengths to which Sam goes to try to ensure his and his soon-to-be-bride's financial security. Without Fowles' rhetorical ingenuity and sub-plots that reveal characters' drive, the film slips further into the pattern of slaughtering the makeup of the author's creative skill.
Surely anyone who's read the book will most likely concede that they would rather adapt virtually any other book for the silver screen than The French Lieutenant's Woman. John Fowles' narration technique, designed to involve the audience in the story by speaking directly to them, and the infamous alternate endings present the most difficult aspects of the novel to overcome in the rewriting process. Surely there must exist a better way to show these aspects of the novel than the way that Pinter ultimately released it. Perhaps a narrator or even Shakespearian-inspired, one-man chorus could narrate the film in a truly Darwinian fashion, making it almost seem like a romantic documentary. Therefore, it would not seem absurd to include some of Fowles' side comments, and the narrator could then even plug in a few epigraphs or primary document excerpts. The problem of the alternate endings would then also be solved: the narrator would present them as John Fowles does in the novel. Obviously this version of the film would last longer than the two hours that Pinter's version fills, but without the second, parallel love story, the new version would occupy less time than one might think. Even so, this new longer, documentary-like version would probably not reap the same fiscal benefits that the 1981 blockbuster did, but at least the film would uphold the integrity of Fowles' novel.
Despite paltry attempts to portray Fowles' literary flair on screen, the film version of The French Lieutenant's Woman comes off as nothing more than a summary of the dominant plotline with a few glimpses into the lives of people that readers of the book have no acquaintance with. Do not misconceive this, however, as a complete bashing of the film. In deed, the film portrays Lyme Regis in an extremely visually stimulating manner, having been shot on location. And the cast, including Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, did an outstanding job playing the well-dialogued characters that, due to unfortunate adaptation circumstances, had very little motivation to guide them. But what does exemplary acting and an aesthetically pleasing setting matter if no one makes an effort to uphold the artistic integrity of the piece that inspired the film? The novel's authorial interjections, alternate ending, epigraphs and primary source documents give the novel its reverence in the literary world. Without them, the film completely fails to capture the essence of the novel, no matter how well it portrays the dialogue and visual aesthetics of the book"