…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
With her record 16 nominations (13 for Best Actress, 3 Supporting), it is inevitable that I keep bumping into the incomparable Meryl Streep during my Best Actress Challenge. Just a few weeks ago and shortly after I started this blog, I reviewed her remarkable nominated performance in 1988’s A Cry in the Dark, and just this week I viewed Streep in one of her very first film roles with 1977’s Julia (2 years before her supporting win in Kramer vs. Kramer). Within a week or so, be prepared for my take on her performance in 1983’s Silkwood. This week, however, we turn back to 1981 to encounter Streep in a rather dark role with the sweeping Gothic romance The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a rather curious film, for it is related as a “movie within a movie”. In contemporary time, Streep and Jeremy Irons play actors and lovers Anna and Mike, who are both married and/or involved, but are carrying on a clandestine affair while portraying lovers in a Victorian era film. In the film, Anna (Streep) portrays the mysterious titular character, whose real name is Sarah Woodruff. Sarah frequently wanders the town and the dark woods, a melancholy and tragic look on her face, almost as if she is constantly searching for something or someone. Compulsively drawn into her spell is Charles Smithson (Irons), a newly-engaged gentleman who is also a paleontologist. Charles befriends Sarah, at first against her wishes, for she wants to be alone and has been basically ostracized by the villagers. In time, however, she comes to confide in him her story: that she is known around town as the ‘whore’ of a French lieutenant who seduced and abandoned her for his family, and she has been pining for him since his desertion. Her friendship with Charles almost provides her with release from her melancholia and so-called madness. Paradoxically, Charles’s obsession with Sarah ruins his life and chances for a profitable and successful marriage and career. While shooting the film, Charles and Sarah’s affair strongly begins to mirror Mike and Anna’s – with the film almost serving as a darkly romantic dissection of life imitating art, or vice versa.
Irons and Streep portray the main characters very capably. It is not my favorite of Streep’s roles, but she is successful at showing both the differences and similarities that Anna and Sarah share, and her internal struggle to do what is right. I appreciated the subtlety with which she interpreted Sarah’s ‘madness’ at a time when depression and insanity were almost taboo and barely spoken about. The film additionally contains some beautiful camerawork (credit cinematographer Freddie Francis), sumptuous costumes (Tom Rand), and has a beautiful, haunting score by Carl Davis that provides creative narrative in itself. The parallel stories are a striking premise, and one which is certainly more effective than a basic voiceover would have been (the novel on which the film was based had the author addressing the reader directly, rather than the contemporary lovers/film actors).
For one of Streep’s more unique roles, check The French Lieutenant’s Woman out for an interesting lazy afternoon viewing. (Streep lost the 1981 Oscar to Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond.)