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The French Lieutenant's Woman (film)

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The French Lieutenant's Woman
Original film poster
Directed byKarel Reisz
Written byHarold Pinter
Based onThe French Lieutenant's Woman
by John Fowles
Produced byLeon Clore
CinematographyFreddie Francis
Edited byJohn Bloom
Music byCarl Davis
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • 18 September 1981 (1981-09-18)
Running time
127 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$8 million[1]
Box office$26.9 million[2]

The French Lieutenant's Woman is a 1981 British romantic drama film directed by Karel Reisz, produced by Leon Clore, and adapted by the playwright Harold Pinter. It is based on The French Lieutenant's Woman, a 1969 novel by John Fowles. The music score is by Carl Davis and the cinematography by Freddie Francis.

The film stars Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Other featured actors include Hilton McRae, Peter Vaughan, Colin Jeavons, Liz Smith, Patience Collier, Richard Griffiths, David Warner, Alun Armstrong, Penelope Wilton, and Leo McKern.

The film received five Oscar nominations. Streep was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, and Pinter for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.


The film intercuts the stories of two romantic affairs. One is within a Victorian period drama involving a gentleman palaeontologist, Charles Smithson, and the complex and troubled Sarah Woodruff, known as "the French lieutenant's woman". The other affair is between the actors Mike and Anna, playing the lead roles in a modern filming of the story. In both segments, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep play the lead roles.

John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman has multiple endings, and the two parallel stories in the movie have different outcomes. In the Victorian story, Charles enters into an intensely emotional relationship with Sarah, an enigmatic and self-imposed exile he meets just after becoming engaged to Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter), a rich merchant's daughter in Lyme Regis. Charles and Sarah meet secretly in the Lyme Regis Undercliff and eventually have sex in an Exeter hotel.

This leads to Charles's breaking his engagement, but then Sarah disappears. In social disgrace after being sued for breach of promise by Ernestina, Charles searches for Sarah, fearing she has become a prostitute in London. After three years, Sarah, who has a job as a governess in the Lake District, contacts Charles to explain that she needed time to find herself. Despite Charles's initial anger, he forgives her, and the two are reconciled. They are finally seen boating on Windermere.

In the modern story, the American actress Anna and the English actor Mike, both married, are shown as having an extended affair during the making of the Victorian film, in which Anna plays Sarah and Mike portrays Charles. As filming concludes, Mike wishes to continue the relationship, but Anna becomes increasingly cool about the affair and avoids Mike in favour of spending time with her French husband. During the film's wrap party, Anna leaves without saying goodbye to Mike. Mike calls to Anna, using her character's name Sarah, from an upstairs window on the set where Charles and Sarah reconciled, as she drives away.


Production notes[edit]

Harold Pinter and Karel Reisz worked on the script in 1979, with Leon Clore as producer, and with whom Reisz regularly worked in their company Film Contracts, formed many years earlier. Leon had produced Reisz' Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment. The film was shot in 1980 on location in Lyme Regis, Dartmouth, Exeter, London docks, and Windermere. Studio sets were built at Twickenham Studios in London to Assheton Gorton's period-perfect designs. The opening shot in the film establishes the dual stories by having the assistant director mark the shot with a clapper board, and then run out of the shot to reveal the Victorian seaside front, with Charles and Ernestina taking the air.

The audience is given alternating sequences of a rigid Victorian society, and the more relaxed modern life of a working film crew, revealing the great moral divide between past and present. Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects, an 1857 book by William Acton, is referred to in the film when Streep's character mentions that in 1857 there were 80,000 prostitutes in the county of London and that one house in 60 functioned as a brothel.[3]

The book was published in 1969. Its transfer to the big screen was a protracted process, with film rights changing hands a number of times before a treatment, funds and cast were finalized. Originally, Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Bigsby approached Fowles to suggest a television adaptation, to which Fowles was amenable, but the producer Saul Zaentz finally arranged for the film version to be made.

A number of directors were attached to the film: Sidney Lumet, Robert Bolt, Fred Zinnemann and Miloš Forman. The script went through a number of treatments, including one by Dennis Potter in 1975 and by James Costigan in 1976, before Pinter's final draft.

Actors considered for the role of Charles Smithson/Mike included Robert Redford and Richard Chamberlain, and Sarah/Anna included Francesca Annis, Charlotte Rampling, Gemma Jones and Fowles's choice Helen Mirren.[4]

The award-winning music was composed by Carl Davis and performed by an unidentified orchestra and viola soloist Kenneth Essex.


Box office[edit]

The film was the second highest-grossing British film for the year with theatrical rentals of £1,244,152, behind Chariots of Fire.[5]

Critical reception[edit]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, calling it "a beautiful film to look at, and remarkably well-acted".[6] Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "an astonishingly beautiful film, acted to the elegant hilt by Meryl Streep as the ultimately unreliable Sarah; Jeremy Irons, who looks a lot like the young Laurence Olivier of Wuthering Heights, as Charles Smithson, and by a cast of splendid supporting actors of the sort that only England seems to possess."[7] Variety wrote, "The effect of the two interwoven stories is at time irritating and confusing, but ultimately most affecting. This is due in large part to the strong performances of Meryl Streep as Sara Woodruff/Anna and Jeremy Irons as Charles Smithson/Mike."[8]

Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film four stars out of four and called it "a beautifully made film, evoking the past and the present quite well. Both Streep and Irons live up to the extraordinary advance billing they have received."[9] He ranked the film #10 on his year-end list of the best films of 1981.[10] Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times, "The physical trappings that surround the Charles-Sarah story are as detailed and knowledgeable as the book's, yet the film avoids a cozy-corner Victoriana that would have been easy to fall into." She also praised "Meryl Streep's luminous performance" and Assheton Gorton's production design as "nothing short of brilliant".[11]

A mixed review by Pauline Kael of The New Yorker described the novel as "a meditation on the romantic mystery women and sensual madwomen of Victorian fiction", explaining that "We never really get into the movie, because, as Sarah, Meryl Streep gives an immaculate, technically accomplished performance, but she isn't mysterious."[12] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "An unfailing pictorial treat, The French Lieutenant's Woman rivals last year's Tess as a handsome and evocative period production."[13]

As of October 2023, The French Lieutenant's Woman held a rating of 83% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 29 reviews.[14][full citation needed] It received a 64 on Metacritic, based on ten reviews.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Actress Meryl Streep Nominated [15]
Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium Harold Pinter Nominated
Best Art Direction Art Direction: Assheton Gorton;
Set Decoration: Ann Mollo
Best Costume Design Tom Rand Nominated
Best Film Editing John Bloom Nominated
Bodil Awards Best European Film Karel Reisz Won [17]
British Academy Film Awards Best Film Leon Clore Nominated [18]
Best Direction Karel Reisz Nominated
Best Actor in a Leading Role Jeremy Irons Nominated
Best Actress in a Leading Role Meryl Streep Won
Best Screenplay Harold Pinter Nominated
Best Cinematography Freddie Francis Nominated
Best Costume Design Tom Rand Nominated
Best Editing John Bloom Nominated
Best Original Film Music Carl Davis Won
Best Production Design Assheton Gorton Nominated
Best Sound Don Sharpe, Ivan Sharrock, and Bill Rowe Won
British Society of Cinematographers Awards Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature Film Freddie Francis Won [19]
César Awards Best Foreign Film Karel Reisz Nominated [20]
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Actress Meryl Streep Nominated
Best Foreign Screenplay Harold Pinter Won
Evening Standard British Film Awards Best Film Karel Reisz Won
Fotogramas de Plata Best Foreign Movie Performer Meryl Streep Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated [21]
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Meryl Streep Won
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Harold Pinter Nominated
Grammy Awards Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special Carl Davis Nominated [22]
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Meryl Streep Won [23]
Best Cinematography Freddie Francis Runner-up


  1. ^ "The Unstoppables". Spy: 94. November 1988. ISSN 0890-1759.
  2. ^ "The French Lieutenant's Woman". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 1 April 2013.
  3. ^ Gale 2002, p. 245.
  4. ^ Fowles, John (2004). "The French Lieutenant's Diary". Granta (Granta 86: Film). ISBN 0-903141-69-8. OCLC 237843976.
  5. ^ "Top Grossing British Films on the U.K. Market: '81–'82". Variety. 12 January 1983. p. 146.
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The French Lieutenant's Woman movie review". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved 29 January 2019.
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent, "Screen: 'The French Lieutenant's Woman'", The New York Times,18 September 1981, C4.
  8. ^ "Film Reviews: The French Lieutenant's Woman". Variety. 9 September 1981. p. 18.
  9. ^ Siskel, Gene (October 2, 1981). "'French': A love story spanning two centuries", Chicago Tribune, section 4, p. 3.
  10. ^ Siskel, Gene (January 3, 1982). "Ten shining films penetrate today's gloomy picture", Chicago Tribune, section 6, p. 3–4.
  11. ^ Benson, Sheila (September 13, 1981). "'Lieutenant' Keeps Book's Many Levels", Los Angeles Times,. Calendar, p. 27.
  12. ^ Kael, Pauline (October 12, 1981). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 158.
  13. ^ Arnold, Gary (October 2, 1981). "Love and Victorian High Tease", The Washington Post, C1.
  14. ^ "The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes.
  15. ^ "The 54th Academy Awards (1982) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 8 October 2011.
  16. ^ "The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981): Awards". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2009. Archived from the original on 23 December 2009. Retrieved 31 December 2008.
  17. ^ "Bodil Prize 1982". Bodil Awards. Retrieved 14 April 2024.
  18. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1982". British Academy Film Awards. Retrieved 14 April 2024.
  19. ^ "Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature Film" (PDF). British Society of Cinematographers. Retrieved 14 April 2024.
  20. ^ "The 1983 César Awards Ceremony". César Awards. Retrieved 14 April 2024.
  21. ^ "The French Lieutenant's Woman". Golden Globe Awards. Retrieved 14 April 2024.
  22. ^ "25th Annual GRAMMY Awards". Grammy Awards. Retrieved 14 April 2024.
  23. ^ "The Annual 7th Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards". Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Retrieved 14 April 2024.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]