The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a 1981 British romantic drama film directed by Karel Reisz and based on the 1969 novel of the same name by John Fowles. The original novel is best known for its metafictional approach of featuring multiple endings. While no such approach exists in this film adaptation, there are other metafictional elements that we will discuss below.
The plot in The French Lieutenant’s Woman is fairly straight-forward period romance between gentleman palaeontologist, Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons), and the complex and troubled Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep), known as “the French lieutenant’s woman”. However, there is an added layer in this plot that reveals that the Victorian period romance is actually a movie, and the story is actually about the love affair between two married actors viz. Mike and Anna, played also by Irons and Streep respectively.
Thus, there is a parallel between what appears to be happening in two time periods but is in fact a story told in two mediums. This clever device replicates the metafictional conceit of the original novel without adopting the multiple endings, which would have been impossible to achieve in a movie.
Probably the main attraction of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the powerful performances of its two leads as Streep and Irons do a magnificent job conveying the nuances of characters set in vastly different time periods. Much of the engagement in the story lies in the sympathetic acting of the duo, as the audience is drawn into the drama, tension and conflict of the scenarios presented.
What is interesting though is that while the movie within the movie gives us a happy ending for Smithson and Woodruff despite the adverse social and cultural circumstances, there is no such luck for the actors Mike and Anna, as they are unable to circumvent the status quo of their respective marriages. A thought provoking concept.
… still there’s more …