Rita Kempley - Style section,
Desson Howe - Weekend section,
'The Bridges of Madison County'
Francesca is a love-starved Italian war bride. Like other women of her generation, she has channeled her romantic idealism and sexual energy into nurturing her two children and her decent but boring husband. When he takes the kids to the state fair, she secretly revels in their absence and is beginning to recoup her sense of self. Then the manly Robert Kincaid pulls into her driveway in his battered pickup.
Robert, a photographer on assignment for National Geographic, is in Iowa to take pictures of the
covered bridges, but he's lost his way. We know right away that he lacks the standard macho
insecurities because he actually stops and asks Francesca for directions. This is the beginning of a
four-day fling that Francesca and Robert will cherish for the rest of their days. -- Rita Kempley
'Bridge' Work Pays Off
By Desson Howe
I didn't just hate myself in the morning for liking "The Bridges of Madison County," which stars Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. I hated myself the same evening. But you judge a movie on its own merits, right? It could be a good war film, a great horror picture or, ahem, a satisfying cornball romance. So here is the case for the screen version of the most vilified bestseller in recent memory.
The reason for the film's success is simple. Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Eastwood skirt most of novelist Robert James Waller's excesses. Running wide rings around Waller's purple prose (almost no one makes a cringe-inducing speech), they preserve the basic situation, in which two grown-ups discover torrid love in their middle years.
This systematic restraint allows Streep and Eastwood to get on with the business of tumbling into love. The screen matchup is a fascinating one, between the laconic, chiseled Eastwood, as seasoned National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, and the dramaturgically methodic Streep, who plays Francesca Johnson, the earthy, romantically unfulfilled housewife who falls for him.
When her husband (Jim Haynie) and teenage children take a prize steer to the Illinois state fair, Streep prepares for four days of restfulness. But her plans are heart-poundingly reversed when a truck pulls up—on this significant day in 1965—and a guy looking a lot like Dirty Harry asks for directions.
Streep is devoted to her family, but her life is overly predictable. Her husband is as sweet as he is devoid of sexual appeal. ("He's very clean," she tells Eastwood.) And although Eastwood claims to need everyone a little but no one a great deal, the moss starts to gather at his feet when he looks at Streep.
What follows is, essentially, gothic-romantic bunk. But there's a nicely stylized, below-the-surface courtship between the performers. They make you forget that, at their very core, they are hackneyed creations—the free spirit behind the apron strings and the rugged globe-trotter with a girl in every port.
Streep, who seems to have stuffed herself with platefuls of pasta for the role and worked out in the gym, engrosses herself in acting tics. She adjusts her hair nervously, rubs her arms, flicks her hand at flies and talks with a subtle but discernible accent. (Sometimes, it's a mite too discernible: At one point, she observes that she's "some 'ouse-waf in de middle of no-where.")
But the method-school compulsions are warmed up by her robust, healthy demeanor. For an actor who normally registers a notch above dry ice, she actually exudes earthy sexiness, like some '90s Anna Magnani.
As for Eastwood, he treads the treacherous Waller terrain with wise, rugged restraint, putting a respectable, granite face on every line he utters. He even gets away with the toast: "To ancient evenings and distant music."
The movie is narratively framed by Streep's now-older children (Annie Corley and Victor Slezak), who discover their late mother's diary detailing the secret romance years after the fact. Jumping between the present, as the children learn about their mother's true nature for the first time, and the past, "Bridges"-the-movie creates an involving, beyond-the-grave conflict. The cutting back and forth also creates breathing space for a rather confining story, in which two people essentially frolic in a cramped farmhouse. Although the movie starts to feel sluggish after 90 minutes (it's ultimately more than two hours long), it's always diverting. For professional snivelers—the easy crowd—the movie will be more than enough reason to fill the air with muffled sobs and sniffs. For the ones made of sterner stuff, it may just take you by surprise.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (PG-13) — Contains sexual situations and brief stunt-body nudity.
'Bridges': Iowa Corn
By Rita Kempley
Clint Eastwood takes off his britches in Madison County. The question is, does anyone care?
Eastwood, producer, director and star of "The Bridges of Madison County," is betting the farm that fans of Robert James Waller's novella will flock to his adaptation like pigeons to eaves. As for fans of Eastwood, it's doubtful that they'll want to see the Man With No Name become the Man With No Shame. Well, hardly any.
While this adaptation of Waller's treacly bodice-ripper leaves out a lot of the lurid excess, it is not altogether free of pomposity. Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese does stick to Waller's story line—photographer woos farmer's wife—though he has beefed up characters, added several new scenes and told the story from Francesca Johnson's point of view.
Meryl Streep plumped up for the part of the 45-year-old Francesca, a love-starved Italian war bride whose waistline bears witness to 15 years of gravy and ennui. Like other women of her generation, she has channeled her romantic idealism and sexual energy into nurturing her two children and her decent but boring husband. When he takes the kids to the state fair, she secretly revels in their absence and is beginning to recoup her sense of self. And then the manly Robert Kincaid (Eastwood) pulls into her driveway in his battered old pickup.
Robert, a photographer on assignment for National Geographic, is in Iowa to take pictures of the covered bridges, but he's lost his way. We know right away that he lacks the standard macho insecurities because he actually stops and asks Francesca for directions. This is the beginning of a four-day fling that Francesca and Robert will cherish for the rest of their days.
Set in 1965, "Bridges" is an old-fashioned "women's film" that pits the heroine's romantic urges against her matriarchal duties. In fact, the film is at its dramatic best when Francesca is finally obliged, like Sophie, to make her choice. It's territory this actress has plowed before, and she plays the role well when she isn't giggling behind her hands or pensively picking at her lips. Her accent is, of course, perfect.
Eastwood, a 65-year-old playing 50, is as furrowed as a freshly plowed field but still handsome in his rugged, rangy way. But when he takes off his shirt to splash his pits under her pump, it's easy to see why the love scenes take place in the dark. Besides, every time the couple break a sweat, Eastwood the director flashes ahead to Francesca's grown kids, a couple of annoying brats who are learning about the affair after her death.
On the page, Kincaid was "a half-man, half-something-else creature" capable of sending Francesca into orgiastic abandon, but on screen, he's more inclined to help with the salad or set the table. In any case, the movie version is much easier to take than Waller's schmaltzy, self-aggrandizing alter ego.
The book's essential appeal, however, is not lost in this simpler telling: The fantasy of what might have been is potentially always better than what is. Better to remember "The Bridges of Madison County" than the bridges in the glass at bedside.
The Bridges of Madison County is rated PG-13 for suggestive situations.