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The French Lieutenant's Woman 

   
 

Mirror Images of Love!

   

 

  

 

There are few images in modern cinema as striking as that of Meryl Streep in The French Lieuetenant's Woman as she stands in a hooded cape at the end of a pier in the wildness of wind and water as a storm begins to rage.  It is a literary seduction, for like the woman in the John Fowles novel on which the 1981 film is based, Streep turns her head with her haunting, haunted eyes and pagan look and the enchantment begins.  The pier, the Cobb at Lyme Regis, has a literary pedigree as well - it features in Jane Austen's Persuasion, and is, as Fowles puts it so poetically: "…a long claw of old gray wall that flexes itself against the sea."

The French Lieuetenant's Woman was directed by Karel Reisz, and the screenplay was adapted by Harold Pinter.  Streep plays Sarah Woodruff, a clever, tormented woman who is apparently waiting for her lover, a French lieutenant - and because of this last reputation is in disgrace with the Victorian-era town; Woodruff is the scarlet woman of Lyme.  Jeremy Irons plays Charles Smithson, a scientist about to marry his fiancée Ernestina who is inexorably drawn into Woodruff's spell.  The triangulated relationship that begins with the scene on the Cobb develops into a spellbinding tale of Victorian morality and love, with a dash of Darwin, science, and poetry thrown in for good measure.

The genius in Pinter's adaptation is the conceit of a film-within-a-film, the changing of the novel to add a secondary story - Streep and Irons also play Anna and Mike, two actors who portray Woodruff and Smithson in the film.  Victorian society is now dramatically contrasted with a contemporary point-of-view.  Anna and Mike are also having an affair, mirroring the love interest in the film that they are acting in.  While Fowles used multiple endings in his novel, Pinter gives the actors one fate and the characters they play another.  A trick of visual mimesis - two actors play four people in love; the film-within-a-film and the dual endings act like mirrors, refracting images of love back at each other.

Streep is quite marvelous as the enigmatic Sarah Woodruff - every silence and subtle gesture capturing the wild, dramatic Woodruff, a woman ahead of her time and out-of-step with life around her.  There is something of both hunter and hunted animal in her portrayal, and this ambiguity in her relationship with Jeremy Irons's Smithson adds to the poignant, dramatic force of the film.  

 

See: The French Lieutenant's Woman 

Read: The French Lieutenant's Woman

 

 

       
 

 
       
     

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