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FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN, THE (director: Karel Reisz; screenwriters: from the novel by John Fowles/Harold Pinter; cinematographer: Freddie Francis; editor: John Bloom; music: Carl Davis; cast: Meryl Streep (Sarah Woodruff/Anna), Jeremy Irons (Charles/ Mike), Hilton McRae (Sam), Emily Morgan (Mary), Charlotte Mitchell (Mrs. Tranter), Lynsey Baxter (Ernestina Freeman), Jean Faulds (Cook), Peter Vaughan (Mr. Freeman), Colin Jeavons (Vicar), Patience Collier (Mrs. Poulteney); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Leon Clore; United Artists; 1981-UK)
“A shallow, confusing and vexing film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Karel Reisz’s (“Isadora”/”Everybody Wins”) Victorian costume romantic drama is set in 1867 in Lyme Regis, England (a resort town in the south of England in Dorset); it’s based on John Fowles’s 1969 epic romantic novel that’s a mix of passion, betrayal and loss. Harold Pinter turns in an intelligent but muddled script that deals with such things as Victorian repression and social oppression as seen through 20th century eyes.

In the film’s beginning we are placed on a film set where Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep) is viewed as a social climbing ex-governess disgraced by an affair with a French lieutenant (a sailor stationed in town during a shipwreck that she had a passionate affair with and now hopelessly waits for his return), but who now enters into another troubling relationship with the handsome upper-class amateur paleontologist and Darwin supporter Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons). The London based gentleman of leisure moves to Lyme Regis when his fiancée Ernestina Freeman (Lynsey Baxter), the dull-witted and strong-willed daughter of a businessman, accepts his marriage proposal.

It plays out as a film-within-a film whereas Sarah is the actress called Anna and Charles is the actor Mike, who are involved in an adulterous love affair. Both affairs come down to whether or not the women love their man or are merely using them. In the film story Charles falls pretty hard, as he loses Sarah, Ernestina and his reputation; the real life story duplicates the fictional one.

Neither story works well, as we are constantly aware we are seeing only a film and therefore can only appreciate the clever undertaking as a technical conceit. The entire cast is also seen both as their real selves and as their movie characters. And since it tells parallel stories, it comes with two endings. The gimmick filming technique allows us to compare an illicit Victorian affair with a contemporary one. The main difference seen between the two time periods is over manners and not emotions.

Despite the strong performances by Streep and stage actor Irons (his first movie role) and the beautiful photography by Freddie Francis, this still remains a shallow, confusing and vexing film. It also never reaches the artistic height it aspires to, as its thin story shamelessly peels away at its historical outlook by robbing it of both its Victorian and contemporary allurements.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”