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'French Lieutenant's Woman': A tricky challenge

By David Sterritt / September 24, 1981

As a widely read and much-discussed novel, "The French Lieutenant's Woman" was a natural for Hollywood treatment. As a narrative with many layers and many meanings, however, it presented formidable challenges. How do you film a story in which the "authorial voice" is a major character? In which 19th-century events are told with 20th-century hindsight? In which the narrator, unwilling to choose an ending, offers two and lets the reader select between them?

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With various solutions, these challenges have been met by director Karel Reisz and writer harold Pinter, whose adaptation of John Fowles's novel is one of the most literate and refreshingly intelligent films in recent memory

Not all their choices are entirely satisfatory, and large chunks of the book have necessarily been thrown away. Still, their achievement is considerable, especially when the complexity of the task is considered. The important characters and the basic plot are all present, and are developed with appropriate care. Also present (and accounting for the film's R rating) is the book's occasional concern with sexual matters -- though Fowles felf Victorian primness may have had adavantages over today's ubiquitous sexuality, and as if to reflect this, the movie's one lovemaking scene is handle with yet more restraint than the same scened in the novel

Like the book, the film focuses on a Victorian gentleman named Charles, scion of a good family and a scientific dabbler in the Darwinian revolution of his day. Betrothed to the equally well-fixed and proper Ernestina, he somehow manages to lose his heart to Sarah, "the French lieutenant's woman" -- an enigmatic character who spends her hours gazing out to sea, awaiting the return of a sailor who once loved and jilted her.

The more involved Charles gets with her, the more puzzling she becomes. Is she mad? or conniving? or both? or simply "liberated" far beyond her age and circumstances? We have to figure this out for ourselves and so does poor Charles.

Unfolding the events of his tale, Fowles lets his own voice (and even his presence) intrude. Victorian society is described and analyzed; comparisons are made with our own age; witty analogies are drawn, Their author modulates this process with striking precision, easing us between the spirits of the 19th and 20th centuries until they seem inextricably intertwined. The result is a thoroughly modern book with a thoroughly historical subject matter, unified by the authority of the telling.

To transfer some of this quality to the screen, Reisz and Pinter employ a filmwithin-the-film device. Usually we see the Victorian characters wending through their Victorian story.At times, though, we watch a parallel love story between the actors who play Charles and Sarah in the film -- or rather, fictionalized versions of those actors Thus the stars, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, play not only Charles and Sarah but also Mike and Anna, modern lovers who are having an affair during the shooting of their movie.

This isn't as confusing as it sounds, especially since the Victorian plot line clearly dominates the proceedings. In fact, the 20th-century subplot is something of a throwaway through much of the picture, especially since modern Mike and Anna seem emotionally pale compared with their Victorian counterparts. Or maybe that's just their latter-day casualness and sexual equality showing through. It's too bad Reisz and Pinter don't use them to voice some of the novel's fascinating insights into Victorian life and attitudes. Yet their presence growns more forceful during the last scenes of the film, and their ultimate function -- to provide the "alternative ending" required by the story's construction -- is both persuasive and moving.