Monday, March 28, 2016
#768: The French Lieutenant's Woman
The French Lieutenant's Woman has to be one of the biggest surprises for me in the Collection in some time. When it first appeared in the coming soon section, my response was "uhh, ok." I've been putting it off because I assumed it was classy award-bait, a film that lacked real heft propped up by the presence of Meryl Streep and a strong pedigree from a popular novel. I had seen Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (which would be a great addition to the Collection) but I had never even heard of this movie.
I loved this movie. It's approach to the adaptation (written by Harold Pinter) is brilliant, one of the best techniques I've ever seen to take a novel's structural device and translate it into cinematic grammar without losing the thematic thrust of the original text. It reminded me a bit of Adaptation, but where that movie drifted completely away from the source material to examine the process of creation, Pinter's script is consistently true to the book (at least as far as I can gather from what I've read). The cuts back and forth between the Victorian setting and modern day are seamless and provocative, highlighting the struggle of Streep's characters to assert themselves in very different ways throughout.
What's funny about my unexpected response to the film is that the movie still kind of is that film I had expected to dismiss. As would be expected from this cast, the performances are great, and both Streep and Irons deliver surprises and deep emotion without stressing the flashiness of the roles they have been given. Similarly, the film's Victorian story is somewhat straightforward, and the movie generally does have a sort of staid Oscar feel to it, even when its structure eschews convention. But this would rank with the best of Victorian-set films for me even without the inclusion of the modern day components. Both Pinter and Streep lost to On Golden Pond, and while it's nice to have another Oscar for Kathrine Hepburn this film is significantly better than that one, and miles ahead of Chariots of Fire which won the Best Picture Oscar that year (this wasn't nominated for the big one). These losses likely contribute greatly to the film's lower profile, but I'm very happy to have seen it
A note on the cover - I love the concept behind the artwork, discussed in a post on Criterion's site, but the lack of color and subtle appearance of the type online has likely hurt this film's profile in the Collection. I'd love to see more talk about this one, as it might be the most underrated release of 2015 and one of the best.