Sunday 12 July 2009

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

Director: Karel Reisz
Stars: Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons

I haven't read the source novel by John Fowles but I understand it's a particularly complex work, the sort of thing that leads people to suggest that it's not filmable. Usually what that really means is that it's not filmable by most. Other unfilmable books have actually come out pretty well on screen when the right director signs up: Terry Gilliam for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, David Cronenberg for The Naked Lunch or even Zack Snyder for Watchmen. None of these are perfect but they're highly impressive and prompt the viewer to go find the original.

Here the director is Karel Reisz, Czech born but one of those angry young men of British cinema in the fifties, best known as a director for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and as a producer of This Sporting Life. The writer is no less a name than Harold Pinter, a playwright whose work garnered him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. With that in hand, I'm sure he's a little less fussed about not landing an Academy Award. This adaptation proved to be his first of two nominations, the second coming two years later for the semi-autobiographical Betrayal.

Beyond The French Lieutenant's Woman being our film, it's also a film within our film and these two levels tell pretty much the same story. In the film within a film, we're in Victorian England, watching Charles Henry Smithson. He's a scientist from London, a paleontologist who has come to Dorset to study rocks, but who in doing so has fallen in love with a young lady called Ernestina Freeman. Ernestina is a very proper young lady who follows all the social dictates of the day and is transparently decent.

Enter the French lieutenant's woman of the title, a mysterious young woman called Sarah Woodruff who rebels against such transparent decency. She captures Smithson's attention in no uncertain manner and draws him into her story, something she has refused to let anyone else do. She's an intelligent and educated woman, but one eaten up by a misery that she has become comfortable with, remaining by the Lyme coast watching for her lover who she knows will never return. Her fellow townsfolk look down on her as a whore or a tragedy, but really she's the subject of a mental illness that she holds dear and refuses to even attempt to cure.

And so this mild costume drama continually slips into a deliciously melancholy gothic tale. Out go the bitter and twisted old ladies of respectability, such as Mrs Poulteney, definitively portrayed by Patience Collier, who hires Sarah as a companion; and in their stead come the smothering gothic trifecta of destiny, darkness and lunacy. Out go the staid and proper mores and manners, where the appearance of decency rules everything; and in come passions roiling beyond anyone's control. The whole film palpably changes pace and texture as we switch between these two competing styles.

And there's yet a third style to compete, because thus far I've only talked about the film within a film. In the modern day we see Mike and Anna, the actors who play Charles and Sarah, run through a story with notable similarities to that of the characters they play. Mike is married rather than engaged, with kids to boot, and Anna has herself a Frenchman of her own, named David. Mike and Anna are in bed together the first time we see them, but the implication is that the connection is merely one of casual carnality. However the longer the film goes on, the more it turns into obsession that grows in parallel to the obsession of the characters they play.

This is known as a Meryl Streep film, hardly surprising as she plays the title character but for deeper reasons too. This was still early in her career and it helped to cement her stature as the leading actress of the day. Her previous film, Kramer vs Kramer two years earlier, had landed her an Academy Award, but only for a supporting role. Here she's very much a lead and the focus of the film, in a dual role no less, in which she has to switch between a Victorian Englishwoman and a modern American actress. She does a great job and the attention lavished on her is hardly surprising.

She wasn't the only point of attention, plenty rightly being given to director Karel Reisz, writer Harold Pinter, cinematographer Freddie Francis and a whole slew of people involved with the sets and the costumes. However Jeremy Irons seems to have been rather unfairly overlooked, with only a single nomination at the BAFTAs. Inevitably, Meryl Streep won. I felt Irons gave a stunning performance also, playing a double role of his own, and while Streep was only appearing in her sixth film, Irons was only appearing in his second.

At the end of the day, though, such a complex story has to be evaluated on its own merits, beyond the way it was acted or directed or lavishly built. And I'm intrigued enough here to want to read the book to find out what the original point was. This was a novel, by John Fowles, hardly a minor name himself, but a work of literature not of cinema. What I read into the story as portrayed on screen was not just a tale of obsession but a tale of artistry digging too deeply into role. As is made very clear by the last word of the film, we watch an actor becoming his character and that can be very dangerous indeed.

Charles isn't even a true method actor, but this feels like a story about the danger of being a method actor. I can't help but remember an odd one out on Have I Got News for You where Angus Deayton talks about how Robert de Niro spent three months working as a taxi driver to prepare for his role in the film of that name, and how it was a good thing he wasn't playing Driller Killer. That was a joke, of course, but it's the same point that The French Lieutenant's Woman seems to be making. It's a valid one and I wonder how the book raised it.


lizzer0 said...

You didn't mention another star of the film - Lyme Regis itself. A place of longing, memory and sadness, Lyme Regis is Dorset's crown jewel.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Yep, it does look good. I spent a couple of holidays in Devon but I'm not sure I've ever stopped in Dorset. I kept thinking I recognised locations but I really didn't until the Windermere scenes at the end, a long way away from Lyme Regis.