The French Lieutenant's Woman, United Artists, 1981. Directed by Karel Reisz. Produced by Leon Clore. Screenplay by Harold Pinter, based upon the novel by John Fowles. Cinematography by Freddie Francis. Edited by John Fowles. Cinematography by Freddie Francis. Edited by John Bloom. Production Design by Assheton Gorton. Music by Carl Davis. Cast: Meryl Streep (Sarah and Anna), Jeremy Irons (Charles and Mike), Hilton McRae (Sam), Emily Morgan (Mary), Charlotte Mitchell (Mrs. Tranter), Lynsey Baxter (Ernestina) , Jean Faulds (Cook), Peter Vaughan (Mr. Freeman), Leo McKern (Dr. Grogan), et. al.
Karel Reisz's cinematic adaptation of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman is a remarkable failure, the causes for which are especially instructive for students of film's occasionally derivative relation to literature. The movie possesses enviable strengths- Reisz's assured editing and directing, masterful cinematography by Freddie Francis, set designs which meticulously replicate the age's moral atmosphere (spacious yet stultifying, cluttered with the memorabilia of things possessed), and the acting performances of Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons in the principal roles and Lynsey Baxter, Leo McKern and Patience Collier in notable supporting parts, which veraciously embody the novel's characters.
And yet the film fails both as adaptation and as entertainment, and the failure can be traced directly to the choices Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter made in their transmutation of Fowles's book. They chose to tell the story of a rather desultory affair between Mike and Anna, two actors working together on a period movie of love and betrayal titled The French Lieutenant's Woman. This frame-tale device, though indicative of the filmmaker's respect for the novel, can please no one. Audiences unacquainted with the novel will be initially befuddled and ultimately frustrated by the unaccountable interruptions of the story of Charles Smithson's obsessive passion for Sarah Woodruff, the enigmatic "woman" of the title. Those acquainted with the novel will be disappointed both by the diminution of the novel into a mere love story (Pinter has been quoted as saying that he and Reisz "refined it to what we finally found it to be: a love story"!) as well as by the miscalculated use of the frame-tale as a cinematic substitute for the novel's distinctive narrative point of view.
John Fowles's novel is "about" personal liberation. His story relates the protracted and painful extrication of Charles Smithson out of the comfortable bonds of Victorian social morality and his exile into the rigorous freedom of a modern individual consciousness. Charles, a member of the gentry and an amateur paleontologist has at the novel's beginning become engaged to the daughter of a financially successful tradesman. His reason for attaching himself to the coquettish and utterly conventional Ernestina Freeman reveals the appeal that surrender to such convention could possess. Initially it is a growing feeling "that life was passing him by, that he was being, as in so many other things, overfastidious, lazy, selfish. . .and worse."2 Then one morning he awakens with the solution to his problem of leading what, in contrast to the ordinary Victorian's commitment to work, duty, progress (they called it many things), seemed a frivolous existence:
Everything had become simple. He loved Ernestina. He thought of the pleasure of waking up on just such a morning, cold, grey, with a powder of snow on the ground, and seeing that demure, sweetly dry little face asleep beside him-and by heavens (this fact struck Charles with a sort of amazement) legitimitely in the eyes of both God and man beside him. (p. 70)
Much as a convict might boast that his cell was a bit more commodious than those of his fellows, Charles congratulates himself for having discovered a legal outlet for his "exteme sexual frustration." But his decision is a dodge and his reason a delusion; his real motive stems from that fear "that life was passing him by," that is, that his own individual existence was not interlocked with the progress of the age. …