The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one of the dullest films I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. Karel Reisz directs–Reisz was a decent director in the ’70s, with The Gambler and Who’ll Stop the Rain, but is probably best remembered in the UK for the ’60s British kitchen-sink drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. This film is based on the novel by John Fowles, which was adapted for the screen by playwright Harold Pinter. Besides being a very noted playwright, Pinter was a screenwriter who specialised in adaptations of literary novels. The Servant was probably the best of these, but he also scripted The Comfort of Strangers, The Go-Between and the unfairly maligned 1990 version of The Handmaid’s Tale, to name just a few. Pinter did this to pay the bills, and would often get pretty bored with the process at some point.
The film itself is an extremely pretentious middle-brow tale told in two time-frames. one Victorian and one contemporary. Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons star as couples in both. In the modern story, they are actors making a version of the Victorian tale, and both stories parallel each other. The Victorian part of the story has some things about the sexual and social oppression of Woodruff (Streep), but it’s frankly an incredibly uninteresting and more importantly uninvolving story. The modern story is equally bland, and I simply don’t don’t care about any of these people and their boring problems in either time frame.
The two performances are fine, though Jeremy Irons probably has the edge… Meryl got all the acclaim, as always. Donald Trump once called her “overrated,” and it might be the only true thing he has ever said. She is a perfectly good actress but hardly worthy of the 21 Oscar nominations and three wins she has gained over the years. I would make a case that her best performance is probably still in The Deer Hunter.
It’s shot in a fairly unremarkable way by Freddie Francis, who had just come off The Elephant Man (one of the most beautifully shot films of the ’80s)—and yes, he is indeed the Freddie Francis who directed many Hammer horror films alongside being a cinematographer for hire. Overall, The French Lieutenant’s Woman did nothing for me, but I guess if you like the book you will want to seek the film out. The adaptation was long in development during the ’70s, with Sidney Lumet, Fred Zinnemann and Miloš Forman circling it at one point, but it seems like it’s a story that’s better suited for the page than the screen.
The disc from Criterion includes a documentary with newly filmed interviews with Streep and Irons, an appreciation from Ian Christie, an interview with composer Carl Davis and an archival episode of The South Bank Show on the making of the film. The booklet includes an essay from Lucy Bolton.