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Karel Reisz
Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Leo McKern
Writing Credits:
Harold Pinter

Dual story that shifts between two actors and the characters they play.

Rated R.

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English PCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 124 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 8/11/2015

• Interview with Film Scholar Ian Christie
• 1981 South Bank Show Episode
• “Emotional Uncertainties” Documentary
• Interview with Composer Carl Davis
• Trailer
• Booklet


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The French Lieutenant's Woman: Criterion Collecion [Blu-Ray] (1981)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 17, 2021)

As of 2020, Meryl Streep has earned an unfathomable 21 Oscar nominations, the first of which came for 1978’s Deer Hunter. The following year, Streep took home her initial of three Oscar wins for 1979’s Kramer Vs. Kramer.

Those two occasions gave Streep Oscar love as Best Supporting Actress, a category she’d revisit only twice more in her career. That leaves 17 of her 21 as Best Lead Actress, where she’d gain her first of two wins for 1982’s Sophie’s Choice.

Streep didn’t win for 1981’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, as Katharine Hepburn took home the prize for On Golden Pond. Still, Woman earns a distinct place in history as Streep’s first stab at the Best Lead Actress trophy.

In Victorian England, we meet Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons), a paleontologist engaged to marry Ernestina Freeman (Lynsey Baxter). However, Charles really loves Sarah Woodruff (Streep), a woman whose outcast status creates challenges in their affair.

It turns out that Charles and Sarah are actually movie characters played by Anna (Streep) and Mike (Irons), two actors who maintain their own illicit romance. Their experiences during the production impact their relationship.

As a 14-year-old in 1981, I maintained pretty good awareness of “mature” movies, and I knew of Woman’s existence. However, I didn’t see it and I had no idea of its story beyond some very vague notions.

Indeed, this Blu-ray marks my first screening of the movie, one that dispels most of those story/character ideas I had from 1981. Actually, the Sarah/Charles stuff follows that path to a minor degree, as their narrative goes along the lines I might’ve expected back then.

However, the parallel plot with Mike and Anna creates a twist, though less of one than I might anticipate. This imbalance occurs because much more of Woman takes place in the 19th century than in 1981.

Apparently John Fowles’ 1969 novel offered one of those “hard to adapt” tomes due to its ample use of a narrator and a generally “meta” feel. The circa-1981 material doesn’t exist in the book and got created as a way to deal with this element.

I think this turns into a mistake, as the “modern day” scenes tend to feel superfluous and out of place. As noted, most of Woman follows the 19th century part of the narrative, so the jumps to 1981 seem abrupt and borderline pointless.

I get the filmmakers’ desire to nod in the direction of the unconventional structure found in Fowles’ novel, but this choice simply doesn’t work. Perhaps there was no good way to reflect the book’s choices and they should’ve avoided these attempts.

Would a version of Woman that solely acts as a period tale of romantic obsession have veered away from the source’s more creative side? Yes, but it also likely would’ve fared much better as a movie.

Some novels translate readily into film and others don’t. It seems smartest to find a way to allow the latter to succeed on purely cinematic terms, even if they need to deviate from aspects of the original text.

And that feels like it would’ve been sensible here, especially because the 19th century parts of Woman work fairly well. Again, these don’t do anything unique, but the Sarah/Charles narrative becomes largely engaging and dramatic.

Unfortunately, the Mike/Anna side of the film never feels like anything more than the contrivance it is. The roles remain underdone and dull.

It seems semi-ironic that Streep got her first Oscar nomination as a lead performer because she really feels more like a supporting character in Woman - or supporting characters, I should say. Despite the film’s title, Irons’ characters dominate and Streep’s play a considerably less substantial part.

Still, Streep does well, especially in the Sarah side of the film. She makes that role mysterious and opaque. Irons tends to feel somewhat wooden, but that appears intentional, so I won’t fault his performance.

Despite its clever-clever elements, Woman works reasonably well due to the strength of its period story. I just wish the filmmakers played the whole project straight and avoided the temptation to go all meta on us.

The Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus B

The French Lieutenant’s Woman appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. I felt pleased with the transfer.

Sharpness was usually fine. Though most of the movie displayed strong delineation, a few wider shots tended to be a bit soft. Those weren’t a big concern, though, and the majority of the film provided nice clarity.

I noticed no issues with jaggies or moiré effects, and edge enhancement also failed to mar the presentation. With ample grain, I didn’t sense any overuse of digital noise reduction, and source flaws remained absent.

Colors worked well. The movie opted for a palette that somewhat emphasized greens and blues, though not to an extreme. These looked positive, with nice vivacity within production choices.

Blacks were fairly tight, and shadows were fine. Low-light shots seemed largely clear and visible. Overall, this became an appealing image.

I also felt the PCM monaural soundtrack of Woman worked well for its age. Speech dominated the film and appeared reasonably natural. While the lines could’ve been warmer, they were always concise and intelligible.

Music lacked great range but still seemed acceptably peppy and full. Effects played a small role and showed decent accuracy, with only a little distortion along for the ride. Nothing here excelled, but this became a more than suitable track for a movie from 1981.

When we shift to extras, we open with an Interview with Film Scholar Ian Christie. During this 20-minute, 19-second chat, Christie discusses the novel, its adaptation, story/character areas, cast and performances, locations, and other reflections.

Though this becomes a relatively brief chat, Christie covers the topics well. I wish he’d done a full commentary but this turns into a useful overview.

Next comes a 1981 Episode of The South Bank Show. It runs 51 minutes, 32 seconds and features information from novelist John Fowles, director Karel Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter.

Bank covers the novel, its move to the screen and changes made, story/characters and related domains. This becomes a pretty tight look at narrative domains – without many tangents related to the production itself - and that makes it a winning examination of the subject matter.

From 2015, Emotional Uncertainties provides a 30-minute, 54-second program that offers comments from editor John Bloom and actors Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. As expected, they examine characters, performances, locations and editing mainly.

This becomes another useful program. I love hearing the two leads, and they offer real insight into their work. Bloom throws in useful material as well, all of which makes this a compelling feature.

Along with the film’s trailer, the disc concludes with an Interview with Composer Carl Davis. It goes for 21 minutes, 13 seconds and brings Davis’s notes about his score and working with Reisz. David delivers a nice overview of his compositions.

The package also includes a booklet. It mixes credits, art and an essay from film scholar Lucy Bolton to finish the set on a positive note.

As an attempt to replicate an “unfilmable” novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman mostly works, but it becomes a mixed bag. While its period narrative engages, its meta stabs at a modern side flop. The Blu-ray brings very good picture along with adequate audio and some useful bonus materials. There’s a quality movie in here that occasionally gets obscured by a few iffy choices.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3 Stars Number of Votes: 1
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