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The French Lieutenant's Woman

  The French Lieutenant's Woman
Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons in "The French Lieutenant's Woman."

© 1981, MGM/UA Studios
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Generally speaking, Victorian adaptations have had a tough go of it. Disney's 1989 miniseries, "Great Expectations," benefited from an apparently ample budget and fiercely committed acting from the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Adam Blackwood, Jean Simmons and John Rhys-Davies. But I can't think of many other film versions of Victorian novels that even come close to the mark. "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (IMDb listing) does. Some will reasonably argue that "The French Lieutenant's Woman" isn't truly a Victorian novel, but we'll touch on that in a minute.

Adaptation on the whole is a sticky business. The first decision that has to be made, I suppose, is just how closely the film is going to follow the book that it's based on. "Apocalypse Now" is a legendary example of how the right director can take even an esteemed work of literature like "Heart of Darkness" and make it his own. The genius of that film lies in Coppola's ability to capture the atmosphere of Joseph Conrad's short novel without trying to translate the carefully wrought language to the screen, which proved a disastrous experiment in Nicholas Roeg's 1994 version featuring the self-alluring John Malkovich as Kurtz. In "Lieutenant's Woman," language is slightly less of a problem--not because John Fowles' prose is any less poetic than Conrad's, but because Britain's highly touted dramatist, Harold Pinter, took on the task of writing the screenplay. The result is nearly as daring cinematically as the novel is in its bold execution of authorial intervention and false starts.

Unlike "Psycho," say, where you have source material that's very straightforward and, perhaps more importantly, brief, the challenge in adapting a work like "Lieutenant's Woman" lies in the very literary and meandering quality of the novel. Any attempt to adapt it would in fact seem doomed to fail in the eyes of most readers. But Pinter has invented a clever equivalent to Fowles' periodic digressions in the book, which was written in the 1960s but is set a hundred years earlier. Recalling a tradition that can be traced back at least to Henry Fielding, Fowles butts right into his story in places (as an actual character, on two occasions) to draw various philosophical connections for his reader. The twist here is that he freely references the differences between his own time and that of the story, and he invites us to ponder why a character might go down one figurative path as opposed to another. It's as if Fowles is proving the point that a strong narrative will not suffer from a little interruption here and there, or even from a little horseplay. When we pick up a novel, we know the events it depicts are not real anyway. Why not push the envelope? Miraculously, Fowles repeatedly manages to glide right back into his plot after each of these asides. Pinter uses these techniques as a launching pad in his script. Instead of employing cumbersome voiceovers or gimmicky flash-forwards, he creates a subplot in which the actors working on the film version of "Lieutenant's Woman" actually become characters, and an affair emerges between the two leads that mirrors that of the characters they play in the film within the film. Pinter telescopes the action one level further, however, by not simply having Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep play themselves in the scenes that take place in modern times. Instead he calls them Mike and Anna, respectively. It's a nice touch that gives us something to chew on whenever the movie transitions between the two narratives.

Now, to the question of whether or not it's fair to call "Lieutenant's Woman" a Victorian adaptation in the first place. Of course, looking only at the fact that the book was written about three quarters of a century beyond the Victorian period's death knell, it fails the test immediately. But Fowles' novel is no mere pastiche, either. One senses that it could have gone in that direction without much trouble, but it's a lot closer to the truth to say that "The French Lieutenant's Woman" defines the Victorian novel not only as the literary remnant of a specific era, but as a sort of genre with which we've largely lost touch, and which holds vast stores of potential for a kind of grittiness that novelists of 19th century England could only suggest. This, more than anything, is the spirit of the novel that is captured in the film. But there are scenes in the novel that the film shies away from. Most obvious is Charles' employment of a prostitute, a transaction that ends before it begins, with Charles puking up a bellyful of liquor without even engaging in the sex he was after. Fowles is able to restore our mostly sympathetic view of Charles after this less than endearing moment, but it might have been hard to pull off in the film.

Many people will be satisfied with nothing less than literal film adaptations of their favorite fiction. Others are willing to allow a director certain liberties if there appear to be sound reasons for them. I don't think either camp should find many bones to pick with "Lieutenant's Woman." Streep's accent falters at times and seems to prevent her from working up to her full potential as an actress. And the final reunion between Sarah and Charles (Irons) is a bit of a disappointment, mostly because since so much of the original story's ambience is captured elsewhere in the film, the hurried feel of the climax stands in contrast. But these are small complaints. "Lieutenant's Woman" is a graceful adaptation and a cozy reminder of the novel's terrific power.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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