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.