An unfailing pictorial treat, "The French Lieutenant's Woman" rivals last year's "Tess" as a handsome and evocative period production. Given this rekindled appreciation of Victorian themes, settings and textures, it would seem a shame to lose the momentum. Perhaps the time is ripe for a systematic rediscovery of the cinematic merits of Victorian novels.

Packed with erudite, opinionated commentary on Victorian society, John Fowles' 1969 novel about a masochistic romance between a young aristocrat named Charles Smithson and a melancholy outcast named Sarah Woodruff was undernourished and disappointing as a dramatic exploration of passion. It carried far more weight as a scholarly dissertation, the basis for a lively, contentious graduate seminar in Victorian Studies.

Director Karel Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter, inheriting a book that had stymied potential adapters for a decade, have been cagy enough to finesse the fundamental shallowness of the love story right up to the denouement, when further concealment becomes impossible. Their movie version, opening today at the Avalon 1 (additional suburban engagements will follow on Oct. 23), is sufficiently attractive and absorbing to sustain the fond delusion that Charles' pursuit of the mystifying Sarah might culminate in a revealing, conclusive confrontation. Fowles isn't the only clever tease around.

The most obvious diversionary tactic is the invention of a second love story in a contemporary setting. This subplot is also playfully tricked out with a film-within-the-film gimmick. The costars, Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, have dual roles: They portray both the Victorian lovers and the modern lovers, film actors named Anna and Mike who are supposedly winding down a clandestine affair while cast as Sarah and Charles in a production of "The French Lieutenant's Woman."

The period story begins in 1867. Charles encounters Sarah while attending his fiance' Ernestina (a fetching, expert new British actress named Lynsey Baxter, who contributes the most striking and affecting performance in the film), a kittenish heiress visiting a spinster aunt in Lyme Regis, a seacoast town in southwestern England. Smitten the moment he makes eye contact with the notorious Sarah, Charles ends up compromising himself by trying to assist her, an act of gallantry that masks a far more passionate interest.

Charles learns that Sarah is a local pariah. Once a governess, she evidently fell in love with an injured French sailor who was recuperating in the home of her employers. When he left, she followed him, only to return a week later, apparently the victim of a cruel romantic betrayal. Since then she has been a haunted and slandered figure, prowling the shore and presumably pining for the lover who jilted her. The term "woman" is a euphemism used by gentlefolk; the less particular townspeople refer to Sarah as "the French lieutenant's whore."

Encountering Sarah anew on walks in the surrounding countryside, Charles befriends her and suggests respectable alternatives to her ignominious position in Lyme Regis. She confides that to some extent she thrives on the disgrace and solitude -- her badge of shame sets her apart from the prevailing pettiness of the community.

Even more determined to help extricate an obviously educated, sensitive individual from an unhealthy impasse, Charles finds himself too emotionally involved to protect his own reputation. When a desperate Sarah appeals to him, he breaks his engagement with Ernestina, an act which invites drastic legal and social penalties. He also consummates the affair with Sarah, who stuns him in rapid succession by (1) proving to be a virgin and (2) dropping out of sight. It takes several years for the perplexed and exceedingly melancholy Charles to locate her, but at last a detective agency picks up the trail. Charles confronts Sarah to inquire, in effect, "What was all that about?"

In the novel, Fowles' digressions kept intruding on the fictional elements and ultimately diminished the characters, forcing them to conform to symbolic uses which served his purposes as a retrospective critic of the Victorians.

Strictly speaking, Pinter's second love story is a superfluous narrative distraction. The modern story sheds no guiding light on the period story. Their only affinity is a vague impression that in each setting a mysteriously calculating, elusive woman is plays a lovesick suitor for a sap. Although it's obviously an accident of timing, "The French Lieutenant's Woman" now seems oddly similar to "Body Heat." No homicide or arson, but the same sense of betrayal, the same overpowering hint of a romantic nightmare rooted in masculine sexual anxiety.

Superfluous or not, the modern story in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" functions as an entertaining distraction. Down the stretch it generates more suspense than the resolution of the Victorian affair. Of course, the novel conditioned one for a letdown where Charles and Sarah were concerned. Fowles supplied alternate endings, one theoretically happy and one theoretically sad but both maddeningly inadequate and unsatisfying.

The murkiest aspect of the novel -- what makes Sarah tick -- remains a psychological unknown in the movie. According to Fowles, the genesis of the character was vague -- simply an image of a woman in black with her head turned. The image became more distinct -- and pictorially promising -- when he then imagined this woman in black staring out to sea while standing on The Cobb, a fantastic serpentine sea wall at Lyme Regis, where Fowles resides.

Using Lyme Regis as a principal location and enjoying the services of a great cinematographer, Freddie Francis, the movie capitalizes brilliantly on this mysterious vision of obsessive solitude. It's a thrilling sight when Streep bundles her cloak about her and strides out to the end of The Cobb. The problem is making up a story that expands effectively on a powerfully suggestive image. As far as I can see, Sarah never achieves a concrete, compelling human identity. She remains an unrealized romantic heroine, an ethereal symbol of something sublimely and heroically feminine that Fowles was unable to rationalize.

On one hand, her behavior suggests an appallingly devious and manipulative personality. On the other, the novelist seemed determined to celebrate her as a pioneer liberated woman, carving an independent niche for herself out of the forbidding social structure of Victorian England. The Sarah who appears to exploit Charles' infatuation and generosity so heartlessly may be easily classified as some kind of bitch. Fowles' insistence that she also exemplifies a brave, unfettered new consciousness is an unsubstantiated claim.

If Fowles could kid himself about Sarah's virtues, film critics are now following his inexplicable lead by overrating Meryl Streep's performance as this ambiguous cipher. The only distinct impression I received from Streep's impersonation was a funny but presumably unintentional resemblance to Shere Hite. A frizzy-haired, morose, reclusive, unlovable, self-absorbed little mouse, her Sarah might make a wacky sort of sense as a precursor of the learned Shere, but I doubt the company was being that playful with the source material.

In contrast to the star's opaque presence, Lynsey Baxter makes the spoiled, immature, temperamental Ernestina a savory, coherent bundle of contradictions. You accept the idea that she's a shallow girl in many respects, but her response to Charles' betrayal of her love and expectations reveals an underlying intensity and pride, a truly passionate nature and nothing to be trifled with. The most forceful expressions of passion in the movie originate with Baxter and composer Carl Davis.