Published Aug 10, 2015John Fowles' 1969 novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman, was a landmark achievement in postmodern literary theory. Though set in the Victorian era, primarily detailing the forbidden romance between Anna (Meryl Streep), the titular French Lieutenant's Woman — or "whore" — and Charles (Jeremy Irons), a biologist engaged to be married, Fowles imposed a consciousness on the text, reconciling the literary sensibilities of the era he was depicting with the reader expectations and assumptions of a modern age.
He filled the novel with epigraphs, footnotes and omniscient musings that contextualized the construct, while shrewdly criticizing the methods by which class, gender, economy, science and social order were depicted in the Victorian form. He also wrote multiple endings and repositioned the characters in relation to their different outcomes to shift the assessment to comparative analysis, further challenging conventions of the form.
And while this novel was well received in its time, embodying the sense of intellectual and formal rebellion present in a society rapidly shifting to interpret the malleable and unjust nature of class and gender, it proved seemingly impossible to translate to film.
As noted in the interview with film scholar Ian Christie and the South Bank Show segment included with the Criterion Blu-ray release of The French Lieutenant's Woman, director Karel Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter were ideally suited to take this challenge. Reisz was known for making films about those who felt out of place within the culture they were surrounded by — being a Czech immigrant that moved to England when he was 12 — and Pinter was the rare form of screenwriter that used the format for artistic and academic expression.
Rather than attempt to cram the many storylines and pose a wide-ranging critique of Victorian staples, they limited the story to the role that gender played, focusing on the love story between the mysterious Anna — an outsider by default, having presumably been a French Lieutenant's whore — and Charles, a man whose transgressive desires stem chiefly from the unpredictable and unclear identity of a woman he's forbidden to have. To introduce the postmodern awareness of text, Reisz and Pinter made the audience aware that this story was, in fact, a film, drawing a parallel story between Sarah and Mike, the actors playing Anna and Charles in the movie version of The French Lieutenant's Woman.
Contextually, the story is quite banal. Mike is married with two children and beds a deliberately ambiguous actress that is herself playing with the unique manner in which her character is manifesting identity within the confines of the Victorian era. Anna, having relegated herself to outsider status, is considered a "whore" by sheer virtue of pigeonholing feminine performance. She is not an active prostitute, which is obvious when Charles finally falls from grace and explores the underbelly of the hypocritical, repressed society that relegates unmarried or "sullied" women to prostitution as mode of survival, but she's seemingly also uninterested in what's classified as legitimacy. Sarah, in performing Anna, embodies this strange balance, which Streep captures exceptionally with her authentic depiction of an actress that's clearly playing with the power and intrigue of her character. She also brings an unpredictable, slightly askew sensibility to Anna, making it unclear when she is telling the truth or what her motivations are, which, in turn, are specifically what enchants Charles.
It's also interesting that the mundane nature of the present day story reveals a sort of reversal of hypocrisy in the role of women when compared to the extremist reaction of 19th century sensibilities. Charles' fiancée, Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter), is perpetually caged throughout the film. As the daughter of a wealthy tradesman, certain expectations of femininity have been thrust upon her that are solidified by her marriage to Charles. Knowledge of his affair leaves her fleeing in various directions, blocked by serving staff and gates. Similarly, Mike's wife, Sonia (Penelope Wilton), is caged in her marriage; though she has two healthy children, a beautiful home and, as noted by Sarah in a particularly powerful scene, a beautiful garden, she is no one to envy. The falseness of it all is apparent through quiet reaction and fake smiles.
At the time of release, The French Lieutenant's Woman was extremely well received. It was nominated for an abundance of awards and solidified Streep and Irons as bankable stars. The format of the film was also oft-discussed by academics at the time, who championed the daring nature of the risky narrative balance, using the film as a soapbox from which to discuss the role of postmodern critique in populist entertainment and the reactionary climate of 19th century depictions, which, in the late '70s, tended towards the oblique as a response to the perpetual release of faithful, sudsy literary adaptations.
This is also discussed on the Criterion supplements, as is the approach to playing these characters in a new interview supplement with Streep and Irons. It's a comprehensive Blu-ray package that provides excellent supporting information, as well as a stunning visual transfer that really makes the memorable cinematography stand out. It's a shame that the adoption of this sort of cinematic experiment became quite popular through subsequent decades, popping up most notably in 2002 with Spike Jonze's adaptation of The Orchid Thief — also featuring Meryl Streep — Adaptation, as they've muted the remarkable nature of this achievement. Fortunately, releases like this exist to remind audience of where influences stem from, reminding us of the cycle of things and the importance of preservation.