NEW YORK — THE film version of ''The Bridges of Madison County'' needed someone like the reliable Clint Eastwood, who brings it instant credibility.
Robert James Waller's novel is firmly ensconced in the national consciousness since its debut, maintaining a permanent place on the bestseller lists. Despite widespread critical derision, millions of readers have adored it.
What most of the reviewers had a problem with was Waller's florid dialogue, which at its worst resembled the turgid excesses of Harlequin romance novels.
Eastwood's no-nonsense direction and Richard LaGravenese's screenplay have jettisoned the book's excesses, and what remains, personifed by Eastwood and his co-star Meryl Streep, is a love story: It revolves around a four-day extramarital affair between Francesca, a repressed Italian housewife in Iowa and Robert Kinkaid, the dashing photographer on assignment to shoot the covered bridges of the area for National Geographic. What made the book, and now the film, resonate is its appeal to anyone who has felt that there was a passionate side to them lying dormant.
Eastwood, who has discovered new resources within himself as he has aged, and Streep, who brings her formidable technique to the role, create a mature romantic duo who serve as an antidote to the usual Hollywood obsession with nubile babes and vapid hunks. At one point in their lengthy conversational courtship, Streep casually puts a hand on Eastwood's shoulder as she is speaking on the phone. It is the first physical contact between the two, and the moment carries more of a romantic charge than an explicit love scene would.
Like the book, the film is structured as a lengthy flashblack, detailing the events of Robert and Francesca's affair, as told in the form of a journal that Francesca's children discover after her death. The scenes involving the grown-up children, both immersed in unhappy marriages, have a stilted quality that weighs the film down. The ending, in which both of the children resolve to work harder on their own relationships (their mother chose to stay in the marriage), is merely perfunctory.
But other aspects of the film work spectacularly well. Jack N. Green's cinematography, for instance, captures the rustic beauty of Madison County, Iowa (the film was shot entirely on location).
Eastwood and Streep, polar opposites when it comes to screen personas and acting techniques, blend beautifully. If anything, these differences only create a more meaningful love story between their characters.
Streep, who gained weight and dyed her hair brown for the role, delivers yet another expert accent, capturing every emotional nuance of Francesca. And Eastwood gives a relaxed, marvelously open performance that is one of the best he's ever done.
At one point, Kinkaid tells Francesca that there are people who will never find what the two of them have found, and that some don't even think it exists. No doubt, those types of people will be immune to the charms of the film in any incarnation.
But cynics will have to step over the rest of the audience, who have been reduced to puddles, on the way out of the theater.
* 'The Bridges of Madison County' is rated PG-13.