Diverse directing talents including Fred Zinnemann, Richard Lester and Mike Nichols all tried and failed to conquer the complicated narrative of John Fowles’ epic romantic novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Finally, it took director Karel Reisz and playwright Harold Pinter to develop an ingenious method to convey the essence of Fowles’ book. The film retells the novel’s story, set in 1867, of a strange young woman dishonored by her involvement with a French soldier and the English gentleman who finds her mystery and sadness irresistible. Simultaneously, a parallel story of the affair between the two actors portraying the central roles in a film within-a-film unfolds on screen.
The effect of the two interwoven stories is at times 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.
The action flip-flops between the two tales, but favors the historic story. Reisz employs several lightning mixes to bridge the action, but more often abruptly moves from past to present.
The unconventional approach to Fowles’ novel takes some getting used to but succeeds in conveying the complexity of the original in the final analysis.
Cameraman Freddie Francis deserves special mention for his painterly skill of recreating 19th-century Dorset and the contrasting sheen of the contemporary segments.
The casting of Meryl Streep as Sarah/Anna could not have been better. Sarah comes complete with unbridled passions and Anna is the cool, detached professional. There is never a false note in the sharply contrasting characters.
1981: Nominations: Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Art Direciton, Editing