Friday, April 23, 2021

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Another of the movies that I recorded some months ago on TCM and only recently got around to watching is the early Meryl Streep movie The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Streep plays Sarah, a young woman who at the start of the movie is walking along a breakwater somewhere in southwest England in the 1860s. Except that we're seeing the making of a movie, much like in Day for Night. After a scene of this and some of the people taking about Sarah's doomed relationship with a French lieutenant, we cut seamlessly to the present day. There, Anna, the actress playing Sarah, is sleeping in her hotel room with her costar Mike (Jeremy Irons), when she gets a make-up call that he answers, so everyone knows about their affair, since they're married to other people.

The big difference between The French Lieutenant's Woman and Day for Night, however, is that in The French Lieutenant's Woman, the movie-within-a-movie is treated as the main story, as this isn't a movie about the making of a movie. So with the exception of a director' clapper at the beginning and a set that hasn't been struck at a wrap party at the end, we don't really see things from the point of view of a crewmember, but as if we're in the movie theater watching the movie, because well, we are, more or less.

So the movie jumps sharply from the Victorian era to the present-day actors and back, which is how we learn that in many ways they're going through the same story. In the Victorian era, Mike's character Charles is a Darwinian looking for fossils who meets Sarah and falls in love with her. The only problem is, he's already fallen in love with Ernestina Freeman (Lynsey Baxter) and ask her father (Peter Vaughan) for her hand in marriage.

Meanwhile, Sarah is emotionally unstable because of the failed romance, and rather an outcast because she's defying convention. One doctor suggests to Charles that Sarah is suffering from melancholia, and should perhaps be sent away to a sanitarium. Charles, for his part, can't get Sarah out of his mind.

The cast were shooting on location in Exeter, and eventually, Anna learns that her husband is flying in, so since there's apparently going to be a break in shooting, she'll go see her husband in London for a few weeks. This distresses Mike greatly, who organizes a luncheon for a few of the main cast members and their families at his London house. There, it's discussed that the book on which the movie-within-a-movie is based has two endings, one happy and one sad. Which one will the movie take, and which one will the actors' lives take?

The French Lieutenant's Woman is based on a book that was apparently considered for quite some time to be very difficult to translate to the big screen. I haven't read the book, but from my viewing of the movie, what they did make works exceedingly well. Both halves of the story are compelling, and since there's a big difference between the look of the Victorian era and 1981 (I couldn't help but imagine Meryl Streep lending those eyeglasses to Dustin Hoffman for Tootsie), it's not exactly complicated to distinguish the two stories.

The actors all give good performances, with the two leads understandably being the best, and the production design works, with the standard movie caveat of everything being too bright and clean.

Apparently, audiences of the day didn't care for the movie's structure, and it was a box-office bomb. That's a shame, since the movie worked for me, and I think is one that should be better remembered.

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