The French Lieutenants Woman

Tuesday 29th November

I read the book first, but this was one of those rare times when the film equaled if not exceeded my expectations, and my expectations were quite high.  I had read the novel by John Fowles soon after it was  first published in 1969; I was then and am still in the habit of buying favoured authors works in first edition hardback, and I remember I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this one, even though they seemed to cost a fortune back then it was one of my few indulgences.  I had read ‘The Collector’ and ‘The Magus’ and was hooked on these psychological novels, where I felt the novelist was almost playing games with one, pushing you this way and then that, and besides the writing was elegant and I enjoyed the stories. I have tried a few of his later works but he seemed to go off the boil a bit after what has remained my favourite of his, and the often re-read – “The French Lieutenants Woman”.  And we never really find out anything about the French Lieutenant either.

But it is the film rather than the book I wanted to talk about.  It starred Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons and came out in, oh I think, 1981.  It was a huge hit, and I can remember every cinema showing it, the Titanic of its’ day, but this was nothing like Titanic, which personally I thought was utter dross. The thing about ‘The French Lieutenants Woman’ was that it appealed to all age groups, and the reason that every cinema was showing it was because so many people who would never have dreamed of going out to the cinema to see a film were somehow caught up in the excitement and there were actually queues outside small provincial cinemas all over the country.  Was it the quiet and understated hunkiness of Jeremy Irons, or the emotional intelligence brought to the part of Sarah by Meryl  Streep, both were hot Hollywood actors at the time, but I think there was something else going on.  This was a film, which like the book, treated the viewer as an equal and an intelligent equal at that. The book is clever in that it has not one but three actual, or possible endings, which still annoys me slightly as I would like to settle on one as my best ending but can never decide if Sarah would be better off as an Artist now, and with a child and a possible happy future with Charles, or the sad little third ending where she seems to be rejecting any affection with or from him.  The film however goes one step further in that it is a film within a film, with Jeremy and Meryl as modern day actors making the film we are seeing of The French Lieutenants Woman itself.  So one switches; between modern day actors actually having a affair and then the film itself, and the contrast between the Victorian film with all its suppressed sexuality and desires shown by glances and looks and the actors themselves quite openly and no holds barred sexual encounters is nothing short of brilliant.  The film of the film, as does the book, owes a lot to Thomas Hardy, being set in and influenced largely by the West Country, in this case Lyme Regis, and is so beautifully filmed it matches almost any period drama you want to mention.

And the film has two endings, one as in the book with Charles finding Sarah again when she is a happy Artist with a child, probably Charles’s, and ends with him rowing her across a beautiful lake.  There is also the modern day ending and again this is much sadder with Sarah, or the actress who plays her just as in the book rejecting poor lovelorn Jeremy.

I have it now on DVD, one of the few I actually possess and often on a cold winter evening curl up with puddy-tat and watch again as Jeremy and Meryl, with her air of unexplained mystery, re-enact the splendid ‘French Lieutenants Woman’.