The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) Directed by Karel Reisz

What a roller coaster life is. This past week has been an emotion filled ride, I'm on the last train hanging on by my fingertips, they're being pulled out, but we're slowing down and I'm still on that ride. Sometimes, something approaching fantasy, with a spice of classicism, romantic yearning and just plain weirdness can take your mind away from the whirly burly. Hello The French Lieutenant's Woman, surely one of the most bizarre 'star vehicles' ever.
Streep as Sara, in the 19th Century
If we zoom back to 1981, we'll find Meryl Streep as distinctly hot property (appearances in The Deer Hunter, Manhattan and Kramer Vs Kramer all came before this). For co-star Jeremy Irons it was TV hotness with his just shown role as Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited making him the thinking woman's dainty dish. Combine this with a script from the mighty Harold Pinter, direction from Kitchen-Sink-Drama original Karel Reisz, adapting one of the author's of the 1960's, John Fowles. Instant classic no? Well, kind of. I do remember watching this around the time of release and thinking what a bunch of pretentious nothing it was. Watching this again, the pretension remains, but there is a great movie here somewhere as well, and not only visually does The French Lieutenant's Woman strike. Streep and Irons give mostly great performances, subtle and believable. But these are the scenes when they play Sara and Charles, 19th Century illicit lovers, who embroider their life in scandal and salacious deeds. So far, so excellent.

Modern love: Irons & Streep
But Reisz and Pinter somehow contrive to make a movie within a movie, so we realize that Sara and Charles are played by Anna and Mike in modern day England, whilst dashing between film sets and cities, they also have an illicit secret love. This is where The French Lieutenant's Woman lets itself down as Streep and Irons feel unconvincing when they are playing themselves (i.e as the actors in the film within a film). Still, Irons looks foppish and sexy, whilst Streep applies the required mystery as the outcast of the film's title. This is awkward, brave filmmaking, that doesn't quite come off all the time. You could want more from those who are involved, but there is still enough from The French Lieutenant's Woman to make you think and remember.

Finally, a movie that feels like real old-fashioned cinema. The French Lieutenant's Woman is of course, by now, rather old. But the story is timeless and the movie stays good despite the obvious 1980s hair-do's. The young Meryl Streep is beautiful beyond anything that today's Hollywood holds – and so good – while Jeremy Irons is great for every sense too. And don't you just love a bit of unrequited love? I do.
The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
There is a movie within a movie; essentially a story of a young woman's struggle in a society that does not accept her as a sexual being. It's the age-old thing: women can only be sexually active and at all desiring for the sake of reproduction, once married. But young Sara has expressed desire and lust and everyone around her punishes her for it. Charles tries to free her by getting her out of the village, but he ends up messing his own reputation and engagement while falling in love with Sara.

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
The parallel reality takes place in the 80s, where Streep (Anna) is a famous American actress, who has an affair with Irons (Mike) while they are shooting the period drama. The French... displays male desire and longing (Mike's love for Anna), and it feasts on Mike's attempts to keep Anna. Still, in the end we see that he is actually married and very well set up in England where his children and wife are. Anna is the sad, lonely one who pays the price of falling for this married man – she fleas without goodbyes. 


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