Movie of the Week: ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’

“The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981) – The opening scene – from director Karel Reisz’s film – surprises but revealing the head-scratching beginning of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” would be a crime.  Divulging it would somewhat spoil the experience of this cleverly constructed romantic period piece.  Let’s just say that the film’s screenplay adds a layer of complexity which amply raises the level of intrigue in this classic romance.

Set in England during the 19th Century, a time when wealthy men courted equally affluent women with the utmost respect.  Gentlemen formally call on the ladies they adore to propose marriage using good manners and thoughtful declarations.

Charles Henry Smithson (Jeremy Irons) asks for Ernestina’s (Lynsey Baxter) hand, and although she seems indifferent, others say, “She’d give her left arm (to marry Charles).”

Ernestina’s father, Mr. Freeman (Peter Vaughan), is a wealthy businessman, and he sizes up Charles as his new protégé.   

Charles (Jeremy Irons)

One day, while Charles and Ernestina stroll along the coast, they discover a woman (Meryl Streep) – dressed in a secretive and eerie black cloak – walking dangerously close to the shoreline during a violent storm.  With the wind whipping waves along the rocky walkway, Charles runs and tries to bring her back to safety.  Little does Charles know that with one resolute look from Sarah (Streep), he discovers love at first sight.

We’ve seen the tale of a man falling in love with another woman while he’s married or engaged to someone else countless times.  Still, this movie demands our attention with its twist and Streep’s and Irons’ charismatic performances.

Streep’s efforts rightfully garnered her a Best Actress Oscar nomination, as she draws our sympathies to her hopeless and tragic circumstances.  Sarah’s plight, however, is self-inflicted, but sometimes a broken heart lulls one into self-loathing exile.  She’s a tortured soul looking for deliverance.

Irons works well as Sarah’s counterweight as he balances Charles between an emotional adulterer and a respected fellow and caregiver.

Sarah (Meryl Streep) and Charles (Irons)

While their intricate relationship looks for common ground, Reisz offers striking surroundings of the British coast, complete with gray skies and stormy weather.  Reisz pays strict attention to detail and doesn’t waste one moment.

Even smaller players play pivotal parts which provide insight into the story’s setting and direction.  The path of Streep’s career continued to point straight up after her work in this complicated role.  With a Best Supporting Actress nomination for “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and a Best Supporting Actress win for “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) already under her belt, Streep proves in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, she can carry a movie as its leading star.

⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Karel Reisz

Written by: Harold Pinter, based on the novel by John Fowles

Starring: Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Hilton McRae, and Peter Vaughan

Runtime: 124 minutes

Rated: R

Image credit: United Artists

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