The French Lieutenant's Woman; Romantic drama, UK, 1981; D: Karel Reisz, S: Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Hilton McRae, Emily Morgan, Charlotte Mitchell, Lynsey Baxter
A film crew is shooting a film set in a small harbor city in England somewhere in the 19th Century: biologist Charles Smithson is engaged to the respectful Ernestina, but one day he meets the lonely outsider woman Sarah Woodruff and falls in love with her. Sarah tells him she had a forbidden relationship with a French Lieutenant, which is the reason why she is frowned by everyone in the city. Still, a doctor tells Charles that she is a prostitute. He follows her to London where they have a passionate affair that results in his breakup with Ernestina who sues him. Sarah disappears for three years and when he finally finds her they end up together. At the same time, the actors playing Sarah and Charles, Anna and Mike, also fall in love but break up.
This adaptation of John Fowles' novel with the same title is an ambitious and demanding story about unrequited love and a couple that became a victim of the conventions of it's time, hence the direction by Karel Reisz requires a lot of concentration from the viewers. Permanent control follows the entire film, yet the fact that Reisz crumbs it's tone by showing on one side the hero Charles torn by a mysterious woman, Sarah, and on the other the genius film-within-a-film idea that the two actors who play Charles and Sarah fall in love simultaneously while shooting the film in the modern time, resulting in a mechanical realisation that isn't romantic at all. Overrated and overhyped actress Meryl Streep gave another calculated performance as despised outsider Sarah that could have been handled better, even though she won a BAFTA and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe as best actress - her performance is formally excellent, but once again poor with charm, magic and wit. One of rare moments of real spark are awakened at the dinner scene where she secretly gives Charles a small note in his napkin so that nobody of the guests sees it, but they are quickly deconstructed back to the cold routine when they meet that evening to talk, but no chemistry ignites. A few occasional poetic moments and the subtle lead of the structure are welcomed in the overlong story. Let there be no question about it, "Lieutenant's Woman" is a drag, but it's an artistic drag.