Play It Again – The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Play It Again – The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Starring Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, and Lynsey Baxter. Directed by Karel Reisz. Rated M. By Jess Lomas.

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).

This month, we’re embarking on a Meryl marathon!

John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman was long thought to be unfilmable thanks to its striking literary style and dual endings. However, what some deemed impossible, director Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) and playwright turned screenwriter Harold Pinter saw as a challenge. They would be rewarded for their adaptation with five Academy Award nominations.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is told in two parallel storylines as actors Anna (Meryl Streep) and Mike (Jeremy Irons) portray the novel’s original tale of Sarah Woodruff (Streep) and Charles Smithson (Irons) in a movie during the 1980s. Sarah’s story takes place in Victorian England; considered a scarlet woman by the townspeople she is outcast for her affair with a French Lieutenant before meeting Charles, a palaeontologist engaged to a society girl, Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter). While Sarah erroneously waits for her beloved Lieutenant to return to her, she allows Charles’ pursuit and obsession with her to continue, eventually manipulating and using him for her gains. Meanwhile, actors Anna and Mike’s relationship off screen begins to reflect that of the characters they portray, an affair that will end with Mike returning to his family.

While the twin stories are at first jarring, yanking the audience from the 1980s to Victorian England, the picture soon settles into a rhythm whereby Anna and Sarah’s lives complement one another and the transition between the two becomes less troublesome. As usual it is Streep’s performance which elevates the film, and it’s not surprising she earned one of her many Best Actress Oscar nominations from this.

At its core, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a study of the battle of the sexes, of women’s liberation and sexual freedom, but it is also an exquisite looking Victorian interpretation, complete with stunning costume design by Tom Rand, who received an Oscar nod for his efforts. Comparing the two eras allows the audience to reflect on the position of women in society then and now, and question Anna and Sarah’s predicaments alongside our own. While weighed down by the long run time, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is provocative and challenging.

3.5/5

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is available on DVD. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix PLAY.

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