Anna (Meryl Streep) is an American actress who is making a film in England, and during the production she starts an affair with her co-star Mike (Jeremy Irons), in spite of them both being married. This relationship mirrors the one in the film, called The French Lieutenant’s Woman, where Anna plays the title character Sarah Woodruff, an outcast in the seaside town of Lyme Regis where she spends hours standing on the harbour wall known locally as The Cobb, staring out to sea after her lost love, though the townsfolk fail to see her as romantic and more of a figure of disdain. Mike meanwhile plays Charles Henry Smithson, who has recently become engaged to wealthy industrialist’s daughter Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter) – but Sarah turns his head.
It took over a decade for John Fowles’ novel to reach the big screen, such was the daunting task of adapting a complex work like that, a book packed with digressions, commentary on the action and even different endings for us to choose which we preferred. Harold Pinter was the man who stepped up to pen the screenplay, and he and director Karel Reisz came up with a clever method of staying true to the source’s effects of modern observations on Victorian mores, which was to make it as plain as possible we were watching an artificial construct. Thus we were able to judge the behaviour of all four of the characters Streep and Irons were playing from the two perspectives the film offered to us.
Which was all very well, but you did begin to wonder quite quickly whether the film within the film was supposed to be any good or not. Was it some swooning romantic escapade that was intended to sweep the audience along in its passions or was it merely some potboiler for the sort of audience who wouldn’t dream of attending popular cinema at its most blockbuster-y and wanted a tasteful diversion without being challenged too much? Without that grounding in our reactions, we were at sea, as much as the unseen French Lieutenant was, in the plots, though Anna seems to take the love triangle in the movie less seriously than Mike does judging by how their part concluded, and one supposed enigma in a Pinter script was a given.
There were certainly plenty of chances for a selection of excellent British character actors to support Streep and Irons, often with just one scene alone to make their mark, so you would see Peter Vaughan show up at his place of work, or David Warner as the world’s sternest lawyer, and so forth, leaving the listless viewer to play the “hey, it’s that guy!” game as the drama unfolded at a length that really didn’t justify what was a predictable yarn. But was it predictable by design, so Fowles could adorn it with his commentary and conceits, or was it because it really wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before in a thousand Sunday night TV dramas and Reisz and Pinter were struggling to justify its appearance in a motion picture?
You had to acknowledge craftsmen of their ability knew what they were doing, it’s not as if they were out of their depth in the movie making lark, yet what they presented us with was going to appeal to the sort of audience for whom good taste was a prerequisite in their entertainment, not to say the art they appreciated, and everyone else whose proclivities leaned more towards having a laugh, a touch of excitement and the odd surprise or two in something more common to the general idea of a night out at the flicks would be abandoned as Sarah and Mike were far too cold as personalities, never mind their fictional counterparts, to be truly engaging. However, should you be keen to plan a holiday destination, Lyme Regis and Lake Windermere looked very nice, and indeed saw a boom in tourism as a result of this movie. Nevertheless, it was too arch in its assembly with too little reward for those who stayed the course to supply a compelling story, there was always the feeling we were taking a step back from the action no matter what was happening, and that was alienating in this context. Music by Carl Davis.