Taglines: She was lost from the moment she saw him.
The film intercuts the stories of two affairs: one a Victorian period drama involving the gentleman palaeontologist Charles Smithson and the complex and troubled Sarah Woodruff, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”; the other between the actors “Mike” and “Anna”, playing the lead roles in a modern filming of the story. In both segments, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep play the lead roles, but in line with John Fowles’ source novel having multiple endings, the two otherwise parallel stories have different outcomes.
In the Victorian story, Charles enters into an intensely emotional relationship with Sarah, an enigmatic and self-inflicted outcast he meets while visiting his fiance Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter) in Lyme Regis. The two meet secretly in the Lyme Regis Undercliff, and eventually have sex in an Exeter hotel. This leads to Charles breaking off his engagement, but Sarah then disappears.
In social disgrace after being sued for breach of promise, Charles searches for Sarah, fearing she has become a prostitute in London. After three years, Sarah, who has a job as a governess in the Lake District, contacts Charles to explain that she needed time to find herself. Despite Charles’s initial anger, he forgives her, and the two are reconciled. They are finally seen boating on Lake Windermere.
In the modern story, the American actress Anna and the English actor Mike, both married, are shown as having an established affair during the making of the film. As filming concludes, although Mike wishes to continue the relationship, Anna becomes increasingly cool about the affair, and avoids Mike in favour of spending time with her French husband. During the film wrap party, Anna leaves without saying goodbye; Mike calls out to Anna from an upstairs window as she drives away, using her character name, Sarah.
About the Production
Harold Pinter and Karel Reisz worked on the script in 1979, with Leon Clore as producer, and with whom Karel regularly worked in their company Film Contracts, formed many years earlier. Leon had produced Karel’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment.
The film was shot in 1980, on location in Lyme Regis, Exeter, London docks, and Lake Windermere, with studio sets built at London’s Twickenham Studios to Assheton Gorton’s period-perfect designs. The opening shot in the film sets up the dual stories by having the assistant director mark the shot with a clapper board, and then run out of the shot to reveal the Victorian seaside front, with Charles and Ernestine taking the air.
The audience is given alternating sequences of a rigid Victorian society, and the more relaxed modern life of a working film crew, revealing the great moral divide between past and present. The 1857 book by William Acton, Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects, is referenced in the film, when Streep mentioned that according to Acton’s report, the Lancet estimated that in 1857 there were 80,000 prostitutes in the County of London and that one house in 60 functioned as a brothel.
The book was published in 1969. Its transfer to the big screen was a protracted process, with film rights changing hands a number of times before a treatment, funding, and cast were finalised. Originally, Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Bigsby approached Fowles to suggest a television adaptation, to which Fowles was amenable, but producer Saul Zaentz finally arranged for the film version to go ahead.
A number of directors were attached to the film: Sidney Lumet, Robert Bolt, Fred Zinnemann, and Miloš Forman. The script went through a number of treatments, including one by Dennis Potter in 1975 and by James Costigan in 1976, before Pinter’s final draft.
Actors considered for the role of Charles Smithson/Mike included Robert Redford and Richard Chamberlain, and Sarah/Anna included Francesca Annis, Charlotte Rampling, Gemma Jones, and Fowles’ choice Helen Mirren.
The award-winning music was composed by Carl Davis and performed by an unidentified orchestra and viola soloist Kenneth Essex.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)
Directed by: Karel Reisz
Starring: Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Hilton McRae, Emily Morgan, Charlotte Mitchell, Lynsey Baxter, Jean Faulds, Colin Jeavons, Arabella Weir, Liz Smith
Screenplay by: Harold Pinter
Production Design by: Assheton Gorton
Cinematography by: Freddie Francis
Film Editing by: John Bloom
Costume Design by: Tom Rand
Set Decoration by: Ann Mollo
Art Direction by: Allan Cameron, Norman Dorme, Terry Pritchard
Music by: Carl Davis
Distributed by: United Artists
Release Date: September 18, 1981