The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1980)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The French Lieutenant’s Woman</strong> (1980)

(On Cable TV, November 2018) I read the original novel years ago but I can’t recall much about it other than some metafictional tricks and multiple endings. So when I saw The French Lieutenant’s Woman pop up on the TV schedule, promising a story about a historical couple and the actors playing them in a movie, I was definitely interested. The best thing about the film is how it takes some metafictional ideas from the book (which sought to be “novel” in the way it presented and commented upon the story) and spin them in an original film-appropriate direction. Here we have married actors having an affair while shooting a movie about a complex Victorian-era romance. It sounds interesting … but the execution is underwhelming. The links between the two parallel plots aren’t particularly strong, and the modern-day romance peters out in an undignified fashion, which would be disappointing only if we actually cared for it. Meryl Streep does look surprisingly good in curls or with bangs (the similarities with Joan Cusack in the later case are striking), while Jeremy Irons does himself no favour with a moustache. The historical plot feels more interesting than the modern one, so it feels frustrating that there aren’t more resonances between the two, or that the film gets the good idea of transforming literary metafictional devices into cinematographic ways to comment upon the story … but then does nothing spectacular with that idea. In other words, there is less to The French Lieutenant’s Woman than expected, and I don’t think that the film manages to come up to its own expectations in terms of the story. Too bad; because there’s a really good kernel of an idea here.

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