The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Blu-ray (1981/2015)

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Blu-ray (1981/2015)

Cast: Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Hilton McRae
Director: Karel Reisz
Author of Original Book: John Fowles
Screenwriter: Harold Pinter
Cinematographer: Freddie Francis
Music: Carl Davis
Studio: MGM/ The Criterion Collection 768 [8/11/15]
Video: 1.85:1 for 16:9, 1080p color HD
Audio: English PCM mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: New intro by film scholar Ian Christie; New interviews with Meryl Streep & Jeremy Irons, editor John Bloom and composer Carl Davis; TV episode of South Bank Show from 1981 with Karel Reisz; Theatrical trailer; Essay by film scholar Lucy Bolton on back of giant poster
Length: 123 min.
Rating: *****

This big-screen adaptation of the novel by John Fowles only became possible due to the masterful script by Harold Pinter, who made the tale about Victorian-era scandalous romance into a most entertaining movie about cinema and relationships in general. He mixed the Victorian period with a modern tale concerning the filming of the production. In the Victorian scenes, Irons is a gentleman paleontologist risking everything to love the social outcast played by Streep. In the modern day they are the two actors playing the roles having a forbidden affair during the shooting of the film. (And in fact the two actors did have an intimate relationship during the shooting.) Pinter’s seemingly wild idea is not that different from the approach of the original novel’s author, who frequently obscures the line between the world of his books and the wider world in which we are reading the book, to throw us off balance.

The cutting between the two stories is especially fascinating, nevertheless retaining one’s interest in both stories. At one point the modern actors are rehearsing a scene and the Streep character begins to fall down. As she does, the image suddenly shifts to the Victorian-era characters and continues the scene in that mode. These were early roles for both actors and their excellent performances helped to cement their reputations as leading film actors. The lush cinematography of the countryside and the English seaside village should also be credited toward this excellent film.

The tightly-bound strictures of Victorian society are balanced against the free-flowing ease of relationships and most everything else in the modern world. The modern day romance seems nothing serious – just a fling – while the Victorian-era relationship is fraught with passion and danger. The Iron character is after all breaching a contract to marry a businessman’s wealthy daughter to go after his sudden true love, and will be a social outcast too. Perhaps Streep’s amazing starring role in Sophie’s Choice just after this blinded the public to the achievements of this terrific film.

I don’t care for the posters in many of the Criterion Collection reissues; wish they would go back to the booklets.

—John Sunier

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