The French Lieutenant's Woman (film)
|The French Lieutenant's Woman|
|Directed by||Karel Reisz|
|Written by||Harold Pinter|
|Based on||The French Lieutenant's Woman|
by John Fowles
|Produced by||Leon Clore|
|Edited by||John Bloom|
|Music by||Carl Davis|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|18 September 1981|
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 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 had 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.
- Meryl Streep as Miss Sarah Woodruff / Mrs. Roughwood and Anna
- Jeremy Irons as Charles Henry Smithson and Mike
- Hilton McRae as Sam
- Emily Morgan as Mary
- Charlotte Mitchell as Mrs. Tranter
- Lynsey Baxter as Miss Ernestina Freeman
- Jean Faulds as Cook
- Peter Vaughan as Mr. Ernest Freeman
- Colin Jeavons as Vicar
- Liz Smith as Mrs. Fairley
- Patience Collier as Mrs. Poulteney
- John Barrett as Dairyman
- Leo McKern as Dr. Grogan
- Penelope Wilton as Sonia
- Alun Armstrong as Grimes
- Gérard Falconetti as Davide
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 Lake 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.
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.
The award-winning music was composed by Carl Davis and performed by an unidentified orchestra and viola soloist Kenneth Essex.
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". 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." 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."
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." He ranked the film #10 on his year-end list of the best films of 1981. 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".
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." 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."
The film was featured in the Season 2 premiere of FX's The Americans.
Awards and nominations
- Best Actress in a Leading Role: Meryl Streep
- Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Harold Pinter
- Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Assheton Gorton, Ann Mollo
- Best Costume Design: Tom Rand
- Best Film Editing: John Bloom
- Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music: Carl Davis
- Best Actress: Meryl Streep
- Best Sound: Don Sharp, Ivan Sharrock, Bill Rowe
- Best Film: Leon Clore
- Best Actor: Jeremy Irons
- Best Cinematography: Freddie Francis
- Best Costume Design: Tom Rand
- Best Direction: Karel Reisz
- Best Editing: John Bloom
- Best Production Design/Art Direction: Assheton Gorton
- Best Screenplay: Harold Pinter
Golden Globe Awards
- Best Actress: Meryl Streep
- Best Motion Picture – Drama: Leon Clore
- Best Screenplay: Harold Pinter
- Evening Standard British Film Award Best Film: Karel Reisz
- David di Donatello Awards: Best Screenplay for Foreign Film: Harold Pinter
- Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards: Best Actress: Meryl Streep
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