The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons
The French Lieutenants Woman may not be a Merchant-Ivory production in name, but it sure is one in spirit. Adapting a critically acclaimed Victoria era romance with an all-star cast (Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, though this film was each their big break), a respecter writer adapting the screenplay (Harold Pinter), and a wonderful director and cinematographer (Karel Reisz and Freddie Francis, respectively). Tack on 5 oscar nominations, and you have one exorbitant prestige picture.
What to say about The French Lieutenants Woman? Well, much of what I would say regarding theme, motifs, and such is already well explored in this essay from the Criterion Collection. A film of parallel narratives, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep play both the story of a Victorian-era gentleman and the social outcast he risks everything to love, and as the contemporary actors playing those roles in a film production, immersed in their own forbidden affair. It is this B plot (the modern retelling) that enlivens the A plot (the Victorian romance) beyond its mere replication of Victorian tropes, breaking up what could have become prestige drudgery.
In fact, the film could easily have lost me in its Victorian stuffiness if it wasn’t for the beautiful cinematography. Of course, Irons and Streep are magnetic, crafting solid performances that also invigorates the material. But for all the talk of whether the original source novel by John Fowles is feminist or not, I must say that the film’s Victorian era plot is almost generic, filled with classic tropes of the period. The Victorian era story is played straight, perhaps too straight, as the story is the stuff of stuffy Victorian novels and isn’t as invigorating as I’d like. The A plot doesn’t have a modern twist in of itself, but rather locates that commentary within the modern parallel story. The modern retelling helps illustrate the Victorian era and create thematic parallels between both stories. The Victorian story is so-so, but it’s raised by wonderful set design, on site locations and foliage, acting, and cinematography.
As for Jeremy Irons in the film, this was his second film, and first starring role. The film was made at the same time as the miniseries Brideshead Revisited, making 1981 the year Irons officially hit the scene. Irons has some wonderful body language with his hands and arms in the film. As film scholar Mark Nicholls notes in his book Lost Objects of Desire: The Performances of Jeremy Irons, there is often a stiffness and sense of containment in his performances, reflecting both the period customs of the time (in this case, Victorian era society) and the character’s own uneasiness, the latter refracting emotional eruption even more when it occurs.
Irons uses his arms and hands to contain himself within this film. Whether he is grasping himself, trying to keep himself under control, remaining still, or trying to resist holding Streep, we sense the social and moral constrictions that bind his character.
Two other things of note. The Victorian love scenes in the film are jarring, forceful and sudden. They burst forth from characters, an explosion of eros too often stymied by Victorian repression. Acting as a contrast, the love between the modern-day parallels is casual and relaxed, illustrating that a modern society decompressing its social norms around sex.
The second note its that, as Nicholls asserts, this film falls in line with Irons’ characters always being associated with perversion, whether it be his character himself (Humbert Humbert in Lolita, the irrevocably connected twins in Dead Ringers) or those around him (Sebastian’s dipsomania in Brideshead Revisited). In this case, it is the melancholic nature of Streep’s Victorian character, but also notable is the lust and male gaze of Irons’ character as well. While his Victorian character is a scientist, his insistent observation and study of Streep’s character is perhaps more creepy than expected.