In 1969, John Fowles pulled off the incredible feat of writing a Victorian novel without betraying either its period or his. In "The French Lieutenant's Woman" the 19th century is used for the starkness of its human relationships, as compared to the clutter of our own, but questions and attitudes from now are applied to then.
This delicate and difficult task having been masterfully performed, one would think that filmmakers would take advantage of it, and concentrate their efforts on translating the approach into dramatic form. Instead, an entirely new approach to presenting mixed periods was commissioned from Harold Pinter for Karel Reisz's film version, which stars Meryl Streep.
The result is a rather poetic costume drama jarringly interrupted by bits of modern banality. The story of the conventional young man swept into breaking society's laws in pursuit of a haunted young woman is told as a movie-within-the-movie. The framework is the story of the two modern movie stars playing those roles, who bed down together during the filming and part afterward with some minor twinges of regret, although they are only consulting their own comfort in the decision.
What is the point of this juxtaposition? That sex is still not entirely private but eventually comes under the jurisdiction of society? That the problems of illicit sex do not disappear when it is more or less sanctioned? These social bulletins are too obvious to justify breaking into a perfectly good drama. Fowles broke into the book by sharing the problems he faced as an author, but the question of which actor gets into which hotel room is hardly an esthetic problem.
These interruptions put an unfair burden on the period film. The mystery Meryl Streep evokes and the interior war that Jeremy Irons conveys as her reluctantly beguiled suitor seem suspicious after every injected scene of them as casual adulterers of shallow intellect. (The shooting of their film is almost over when the actress puts on her oversize eyeglasses and does the research that tells her that there was a lot of prostitution in Victorian London. She proudly informs her co-star and lover that she now understands the line she had delivered about "I know what I would become if I went to London.") You find yourself noticing silly details, like the fact that she seems to wear lipstick as a Victorian but not as a modern woman.
All these barriers should not obscure the fact that the Victorian part of the film is lovely. Shown without breaks, it would probably have a true unity of visual and emotional mood, as well as a strong point to make about different people's abilities to live within and without the given forms of any society.
In this case, the heroine has broken out, and done so by casting away her reputation before actually violating the social laws. She has chosen to appear as a fallen woman jilted by her lover, when in fact she is not really either. But there is a freedom, in the partial ostracism that results, that she could not have enjoyed under society's approval.
The man who finds this irresistible has himself had all of society's advantages, including the love of an eligible young woman. It is to the film's great credit that this fiancee, charmingly played by Lynsey Baxter, is clearly something of a free spirit herself. Love and enthusiasm often keep her rattling impatiently at the stiffness of social forms. So the two women, both actually virgins but both full of bated passion, are not that different -- it's the manufactured shadow that the French Lieutenant's Woman has cast over herself that makes her seem more erotic.
Certain details pertain to the early era, such as the way in which servants were inevitably privy to their masters' secrets, which is cleverly woven into the drama. But like any good story about the difficulties of fixing amorphous human emotions into set social forms, the point is timeless, and it's insulting to be reminded that people are still people.
THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN -- At the Avalon 1.