The Man Who Made the French Lieutenant's Woman

By Welsh, Jim | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1982 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Made the French Lieutenant's Woman


Welsh, Jim, Literature/Film Quarterly


Georg Gaston, Karel Reisz. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980. 166 pp. $13.95.

Eva Orbanz, Journey to a Legend and Back: The British Realistic Film. Berlin: Volker Spiess, 1977. 213 pp. $11.95.

Harold Pinter, The French Lieutenant's Woman: A Screenplay. Boston: yttle, Brown, 1981. 104 pp. $11.95

The French Lieutenant's Woman, in my opinion, is one of the very best pictures of 1981, worthy and watchable, and one of the best period reconstructions I have ever seen. It features Meryl Streep in the strongest movie role of her career so far. She has already been named best film actress of 1981 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for this stunning performance. What enables an actress who is obviously gifted to reach beyond her usual resources to find a performance so rich and evocative as Ms. Streep has given us in this picture?

While I cannot presume to answer that question satisfactorily, I strongly suspect it may be because in The French Lieutenant's Woman there is a gifted director standing behind her. I will confess a bias: I believe in the auteur theory, that is to say, I believe, though with some reservations, in the cult of the director. I do not believe The French Lieutenant's Woman would be as good as it is if Karel Reisz had not been chosen to direct it, and if Harold Pinter had not been commissioned to write the script. "Authorship," in this instance, must also be extended to include the screenwriter who shaped the narrative, but it is the director who made the film.

One is tempted to consider Karel Reisz a British director, even though he was born in Czechoslovakia in 1926. It's astonishing to consider that two of the top American films of 1981 were made by Czech directors, astonishing, but tolerable, since both are men of proven talent. Milos Tomas Jan Forman, the director of Ragtime, was also born in Czechoslovakia, in Caslav, some fifty miles east of Prague, in 1932. Milos Forman pretty well demonstrated that he had internalized American values when he adapted Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to cinema. Karel Reisz has lived much longer in England than Forman had lived in the United States when he made Cuckoo's Nest. These Czechs are highly adaptable to foreign ways.

A lively interview with Karel Reisz appears in Eva Orbanz's book Journey to a Legend and Back: The British Realistic Film (Berlin: Edition Volker Spiess, 1977, translated by Stuart Hood, and available from New York Zoetrope, 31 East 12th Street, New York, N.Y. 10003 at $11.95). This is noteworthy, since Reisz has not granted many interviews. When the Germans who interviewed him stated "You make very British films," Reisz responded: "Yes, but I don't feel English." The vision of Victorian England Reisz creates in The French Lieutenant's Woman, however, seems very English, a Romantic impression carefully built upon realistic detail and meticulous art direction. This interview was held long before The French Lieutenant's Woman was made, but there are general statements that are evocative in terms of the director's later work: "I find every time I start a film," Reisz said, for example, "I think it's about something and it ends up really being something quite else. You know event (a) creates event (b), and so on, and that's the way it works, and you just have to lay yourself open to that. I can't have a preconception and then say: 'Oh, that will fit, that won't.' " About actors, Reisz claims that "the number of actors who can improvise usefully isn't all that great." One wonders after French Lieutenant's Woman if Meryl Streep may bean exception to that general rule.

Journey to a Legend and Back is an ambitious and useful book, one that seeks to examine the whole documentary tradition through a number of interviews.

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