Clint Eastwood & Co. have performed a considerable job of alchemy on “The Bridges of Madison County,” turning Robert James Waller’s slender, treacly romance, still on the bestseller lists after nearly three years, into a handsomely crafted, beautifully acted adult love story. Given the intelligent restraint of the treatment, this is about as fine an adaptation of this material as one could hope for, although there is still something of a gap between the impressive skill of the filmmaking and the ultimately irredeemable aspects of the source. Readers of the book will find the sexual heat reduced, along with the author’s most egregiously sentimental excesses, while longtime Eastwood fans may have divided reactions to seeing their hero in his most sensitive, touchy-feely role to date. But the biggest B.O. question mark lies with younger viewers, many of whom will not be lured by a frankly passionate love story featuring actors older than their parents. Nonetheless, commercial prospects look solid with general audiences.
The tale of the fleeting, illicit romance between an Iowa farm wife and an older, free-spirit photographer, Waller’s phenom represents the most blatant form of love-starved-middle-aged-woman fantasy. On the male side, it also reads like an outrageous self-projection on the part of the author, a view of himself, via National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, as “the last cowboy,” one of a dying breed.
Fortunately, Eastwood has already been there and done that, so he, with the notable help of scenarist Robert LaGravenese, is able to junk Waller’s most preposterous posturings and slide right into a role that seems to have been written with him in mind. He’s a simple, direct, self-confident, highly masculine fellow who knows his way around the world, and women, so well that he nearly always says and does the right thing.
The story, which even at 171 book pages felt heavily padded, could scarcely be simpler. Kincaid, on assignment in Madison County in 1965, stops at the farmhouse of Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep), whose husband and two teenage kids are out of town, to ask directions to the area’s photogenic covered bridges , and the two embark on a four-day fling that deeply marks both of them for the rest of their lives.
In contrast to the novel’s chaotic structural devices, LaGravenese has smartly framed the story around the confessional narrative of the affair left for Francesca’s children to read after her death. The kids can scarcely believe what they learn about what they thought was their proper, unsexual mom, but they , along with the audience, can’t help becoming absorbed in the story of the great, utterly unexpected passion of this woman’s life.
During the early stretches of small talk, Robert and Francesca behave with an impeccable politeness that is borderline boring. At the same time, however, as the
characters slowly get to know each other while Francesca watches Robert make his initial survey of a bridge, director Eastwood boldly shows that he is not afraid of dramatic silences punctuated only by the evocative whistle of the wind , the rustle of corn stalks, the cooing of birds, the scratchy strains of rural radio, nor of watchful moments in which two solitary characters sniff each other out.
Italian by birth and long since resigned to live out her days with her decent but unexciting husband, Francesca begins getting hot and bothered by the alluring stranger and, by the second night, the inevitable happens. They then manage to pack a lifetime of pent-up emotion, passion, hopes and expectations into a couple of days, defining and confirming an extraordinary bond between them.
Project is well known for having gone through several writers and proposed directors, including Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack and Bruce Beresford, and one can only feel that it finally landed in the right hands.
All the choices made by screenwriter LaGravenese represent improvements on the original text: The amplification of Francesca’s children provides helpful echoes to the main drama; the addition of another adulteress creates a parallel, and more tragic, alternative to Francesca; a potent breakfast argument clarifies and sharpens the relationship much better than does anything in the book; and all the self-aggrandizing stuff about Kincaid as some kind of seer has been jettisoned, to great benefit.
It’s Douglas Sirk-type female weepie material, handled by Eastwood with the utmost tact, maturity and restraint, so much so that there is a noticeable distance between the story and its emotional effect. The attention to detail, in both character and rural atmosphere, is superb, and Eastwood evinces a fine touch for the nature of isolated existences and the inner lives of loners who find common ground. Onscreen together a great majority of the time, the two leads come up aces.
It’s impossible to imagine anyone but Eastwood as Kincaid, so it follows that he’s perfect in the part — charming, confident, amusing, sexy in a low-key way. Actor has been loosening up his image in some recent films and while he may lose some of his edge in the process, here he goes much further than ever as he cries and makes tender love to a sensitive woman.
Even better is Streep, who has never been so warm, earthy and spontaneous. Sporting an Italian accent that adds a welcome flavor to the otherwise cornfed ambience, actress radiantly delineates the late flowering of a neglected heart.
A couple of the supporting performances are a bit broad, not every cloying line has been removed from the dialogue, and sex scenes, if anything, err on the side of discretion. But there are outstanding compensations in Jack N. Green’s superior lensing of Iowa locations, Jeannine Oppewall’s evocative production design and Lennie Niehaus’ modest score, which is complemented by numerous period tunes.