'French Lieutenant's Woman': A tricky challenge

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?

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.

As photographed by Freddie Francis, a longtime master of his craft, "The French Lieutenant's Woman" is the most visually beautiful movie in ages overflowing with treats for the eye. Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep head a large and capable cast, thought they rarely generate the keen excitement of the books best passages. The screen positively swarms with period detail, sometimes expressed through elaborate set pieces, sometimes hinted by the slightest shift of a facial muscle to indicate some deep-rooted Victorian mind-set.

Published in 1969, "The French Lieutenant's Woman" bounced around Hollywood for years before Reisz got hold of it. At various times it passed into the hands of directors as different as Mike Nichols, Fred Zinnemann, and Franklin J. Schaffner, but because of casting problems and script uncertainties, it has not made its way to the screen until now.

"The big problem," according to Reisz, "is that it's a 19th-century book very openly written from a 20th-century point of view. If you take that element away , you just can't tell the story."

Casting was another big challenge. Reisz had seen Meryl Streep in "The Taming of the shrew" at the Central Park Theater in New York, and loved her. "She played Kate like something out of 'The Three Musketeers,'" he recalls. He approached her early about playing Sarah, and it was by "great good fortune" that she became a star in the interim with such films as "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "The Seduction of Joe Tynan."

Charles is played by Jeremy Irons, an unfamiliar face that may be very familiar before long. "This story is about class, to some extent," Reisz says. "One way of seeing it is that an outcast woman with no social position draws a gentleman into her web."

It was tricky to find such a performer to play Charles. "There were gentlement stars in the '20s and '30s," says Reisz, citing such luminaries as Laurence Olivier and Robert Donat. "Then 20 years ago, it became Richard Burton , Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole -- the image was all working-class lads who had made it. The energy was a plebian energy, and excellnt it was, too."

But it wasn't what he needed for Charles. Nor did he readily see what he sought in today's crop of leading men, "who play upperclass and well-educated people with great irony -- the silly richman, and all that -- as if everything were P. G. Wodehoused'D." He chose Irons because of his demeanor as well as his skill. "In this story," Reisz says, "the notion of the gentleman is not of a snob or a privileged man . . . There is a moral imperative in being a gentleman. When he falls for Sarah it's fall, a disgrace, and a damaging thing to do. Before you can dramatize that, you must convince the audience this gentleman is upright, moral, and a good man."

Convincing the audience is Reisz's great gift. "The French Lieutenant's Woman" is not at the pinnacle of his work, but it's a strong and dignified accomplishment, head and shoulders above most of the frivolities the studios have been grinding out lately. As a bonus, Reisz's last picture -- the underrated "Who'll Stop the Rain" -- will be reissued early next year by United Artists Classics under its orginally intended title, "Dog soldiers." Reisz is riding high. And it couldn't happen to a more deserving director.

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