As she says so herself, Sarah Woodruff is a remarkable person. But in the world of Victorian England, with the restrictions and hypocrisies that bind women in prisons of compliance or exile, she struggles to establish and express her own subjectivity and creativity. This is the simple key to the heart of the mystery of “the French Lieutenant’s Woman,” or “poor Tragedy,” as the Lyme Regis locals call her. And it is this mystery that enthralls and entraps paleontologist Charles Smithson, leading him to adopt what he perceives to be the conventional role of the gallant savior, only to learn that he is being used in a strategy of emancipation, but not in the way that he thinks.
The film adaptation of John Fowles’s celebrated 1969 novel was directed by Karel Reisz in 1981, from a screenplay by Harold Pinter. The challenge of the adaptation lay in the novel’s multiple endings, each demanding a retrospective repositioning of the story as a whole and of the characters, as well as in its omniscient narrative voice, which filters the nineteenth-century events through a twentieth-century lens, discussing every aspect of the characters’ lives, ranging from the fashion of their clothes to their belief in hell. Fowles’s postmodern take on narrative convention and literary sensibility produced a metafiction that comments on reader expectations in both the Victorian and the contemporary period and explores the social hypocrisies of the earlier era through an excoriating depiction of class, gender, science, and economics. It’s a tour de force but posed a uniquely difficult task for the filmmaker.
Pinter’s screenplay is a masterful achievement in that it not only offers a sense of alternative and layered storytelling but also provides a unified focus for the thrust of the film’s experience, which is different from the novel’s more detached and scholarly appeal. Fowles’s book employs various literary devices—which also include epigraphs and footnotes—in order to conduct a clinical exploration of the Victorian novel and a forensic examination of Charles’s character and society. The film does away with the more esoteric literary theory—while keeping the postmodernity of the multiplicity of meanings—and, from Fowles’s wide-ranging social critique, focuses in on the lot of women, through two stories of men’s obsessive love, both driven by the enigma of the motivations and desires of the women in question. Pinter’s strategy for remaining faithful to the novel’s contemporary take on the Victorian age is to set these two stories in the different eras and run them in parallel: the one concerning Sarah Woodruff and Charles Smithson in Victorian England, and the other an affair between Anna and Mike, the two actors playing the parts of Sarah and Charles in a film being made of the novel.
Sarah and Anna are played by Meryl Streep, in one of her first leading roles, and she inhabits both characters along a tightrope between attraction and distance. Her facial features, from the right side fine and even, from the left plain and out of alignment, convey this duality through close-ups and repose, as do oddly timed gestures and movements that appear to break the smooth progression of a scene and draw attention to her performance. Whether it is a strange twitching of her nose and eyes when she removes her spectacles as Anna, thinking about her role, or an unexpected lunging swing around a tree trunk as Sarah, while she otherwise sedately relates her encounters with the French lieutenant, Streep’s performance offers little jars and interruptions, keeping her continually surprising and unpredictable to us and Charles. Jeremy Irons, in a role that demonstrates the tortured eroticism that would characterize his later career in such films as Damage (1992) and Lolita (1997), delivers a performance as Mike and Charles that is wrought with agony and transgressive sexual longing. His fine-boned aristocratic handsomeness of face and body is appropriate for the upper-class English gentleman Charles and languid actor Mike, but the avid intensity of his dark brown eyes and the subtlety of his repressed but physically evident arousal are again perfectly pitched to embody the duality that these characters require.
The extraordinary achievement of the performances of Streep and Irons is that they fully convince and engage in the primary love story, despite its being made abundantly clear from the very first shot that we are witnessing a fiction. In a strikingly audacious opening setup, we see Streep as Anna as Sarah, checking her makeup in a mirror. She is in heritage costume, but the woman holding the mirror is dressed in contemporary clothes, and a Land Rover drives away in the distance. Anna is asked if she is ready, she nods, and the clapper board announces that filming has begun. The first credit is “A Karel Reisz Production,” and the haunting Carl Davis score begins to build, conveying both hope and doom in every cadence. The drama of “the French Lieutenant’s Whore” has begun to be created, and we know it is fictional, yet, like Charles, we are seduced by the enigmatic romance of the tale.
We are introduced to the earnest scientist Charles Smithson as he scrapes away at his fossils and decides it is time to seek the hand of young Ernestina Freeman (Lynsey Baxter) in marriage. He sets off in horse and carriage with his manservant, Sam, the scene-stealingly chirpy young Hilton McRae. The rural and jolly soundtrack is ominously undercut by the engraving on the churchyard gate that they pass, entreating us and all who see it to “Watch and Pray.” Ernestina happily accepts Charles’s proposal, and there is an awkward embrace, rather than a kiss, as he struggles to negotiate her coiffure. There is then a cut to Mike, minus Charles's large, hairy sideburns, lying in bed with Anna. He reveals their affair to colleagues by answering the telephone in her room, and their easy, sexy familiarity contrasts markedly with the stiffness of relations between Ernestina and Charles. An image of the breezily beautiful Anna as she hastily gets into her driver’s car to go to the set cuts sharply to a morbid portrait, being drawn by Sarah’s hand, of her dead mistress lying in her coffin as the wooden lid is nailed shut.
The soundtrack, camera movement, and lighting in the Sarah Woodruff sequences are more akin to gothic horror than Victorian romance, and the element of danger is affectively wrought throughout the film, creating a sinister element, shored up by Streep’s haunted performance, that is far more pronounced than in the novel. Charles and Ernestina are walking near the town’s harbor wall, the Cobb, when a storm begins to blow, and Charles—the English gentleman—risks his own safety to get to the woman at the end of the jetty, who he fears may be in danger. As he approaches, the hooded figure turns to face him with a look barely over her shoulder, but that is enough to entrance him. This must be one of the most mesmerizing facial reveals in cinema, as Sarah’s face, not conventionally pretty or glamorous but intelligent, damaged, and soulful, shows itself to Charles long enough for him to be smitten, before turning back to face the sea, after which she apparently yearns. The turn back to the sea, her body moving slightly before her face, suggesting that her eyes are slightly drawn to stay looking, accompanied by music that both challenges and entreats, is an image of mystery and intrigue that invites all who see it to want to know more about her.
As Charles is drawn into Sarah’s world of drama and passion through his sexual obsession and her apparent need for him to be her savior, the predicament of a single, educated woman such as her in society is subtly conveyed. The local doctor, Dr. Grogan (Leo McKern), has illustrations of brain surgery and models of heads all around his study. He speaks of melancholia and committing Sarah to an asylum, and when we glimpse inside such a place, it is populated by women dressed in rags, hovering in corners, rocking and whimpering. One of his conversations with Charles takes place as he has a short break from a breech delivery, wearing a top hat and tails, no less. He speaks to Charles of the mysterious Sarah while the agonized screams of the woman giving birth are heard in the background. The film shows that women suffered greatly under the prevailing medical practices of the day, and behavior like Sarah’s, involving fantasy, sadness, sexual appetite, and artistic thoughts, meant pathology and committal. Or prostitution. As Anna does research for her role, in particular the delivery of the line “If I went to London, I know what I would become,” she discovers the prevalence of brothels and prostitution in Victorian London. The reality for a woman like Sarah was that unconventional behavior would see her either in an asylum or on the streets.
In this way, Sarah is at risk, which partly explains the sinister atmosphere of the scenes where she defies her mistress by walking on the undercliff or fervently sketches haunted visions of herself in the mirror by candlelight in her attic room. But the other reason for the feeling of doom and danger that pervades the film is the inevitable destruction of Charles’s life as he falls more deeply in love with her. And this desperation is echoed in Mike’s ardent attachment to Anna. As they rehearse a scene where Sarah stumbles and Charles catches her, Anna—as Sarah—suddenly looks at Mike—as Charles—who looks back and says, “Miss Woodruff,” and the intensity of feeling between the two is electric and startling. This indicates the uniting of the parallel love stories in the obsessiveness of Mike/Charles, and the feeling that Anna/Sarah is not fully in his grasp.
Along with the tension and the danger in the film, there is immense beauty. The scenes shot in the forest are exquisitely atmospheric, with the sounds of birdsong and rustling leaves captured in all their muffled dampness, evoking the feeling of a vivarium or conservatory. Sunlight glimmers through the trees far overhead, and Sarah strolls freely, with her hair unkempt, swinging her arms. When she recounts the story of the mysterious Varguennes, the French lieutenant, to a rapt Charles, her monologue is delivered theatrically and precisely, while Charles does not say a word. It is a captivating scene, which in retrospect explains Sarah’s plight: she has placed herself beyond the pale, unlike other women, in order to avoid the marriage and childbearing that are expected of her and to find herself and her freedom. It is ironic that, in order to gain that freedom, she ensnares and destroys Charles, and she does so skillfully and with intelligent insight into how he will respond to every prompt she offers. This entrapment is not echoed in the relationship between Mike and Anna. Mike pursues Anna, even though he acknowledges that she is “a free woman,” to which she affirms swiftly and definitely, “Yes, I am.”
Desperate to see Anna, Mike asks his wife, Sonia, played with poignancy and dignity by Penelope Wilton, to have the cast over for Sunday lunch. This study in awkwardness finds Mike trying to grab Anna for stolen kisses, while Anna and Sonia share a meaningfully sad exchange about the beauty of the garden. Anna says that she envies Sonia, to which she replies, “Oh, I wouldn’t bother to envy me, if I were you.” She has an unfaithful husband who is in love with another woman—this woman—and the artifice of her situation is painfully visible. Similarly trapped is the spoiled Ernestina, who has nowhere to go when Charles breaks off their engagement. She tries to run out of the room and is faced by household staff, so she tries to run into the garden but finds herself in the conservatory, surrounded by barred windows. She is imprisoned in a world of archery and tea parties, home furnishings and social niceties, and to be a jilted fiancée is surely a disgrace from which she will not easily recover. Marriage, domesticity, and social convention seem to offer a thoroughly bad deal for women in the film, whether in the Victorian era or 1980s England.
Following the sexual encounter with Sarah that proves so revelatory, Charles loses his fiancée, his position in society, and, seemingly, his ability to do anything other than search for the departed Sarah. Visions of gray-faced, downtrodden women leaving the workhouse, or ghoulishly made-up ladies of the night, become the backdrop of Charles’s search, as he scours their faces for a glimpse of Sarah. When ultimately she makes herself known to him, she is indeed the woman she wanted to be: free, working, creating. As Charles observes, she “has found her gift.” As Anna looks at herself in the mirror during the film’s wrap party, she seems aware of the dangers of being trapped, and the need to be free. It is panic that drives her to leave the party with things unresolved with Mike. And as he leans out of the window and yells, “Sarah!” it is confirmed for us that his passion is for the idea of the enigmatic woman who is out of his reach.
This sinister, entrancing, and atmospheric film is also a powerful provocation to thought about the desirability of the enigmatic woman in patriarchy. It is Sarah’s fabricated identity as a fallen woman that entrances Charles and appalls her society, but it exists because of her need to hang her difference on something tangible. Her desire not to fit into the roles that society offers her requires that she find a home for her exceptionality. As a woman who simply requires a room of her own in which to create, and the freedom to be left alone to do so, she has to sacrifice a lustful Sir Galahad in order to satisfy her needs. As a free, working, creative actor, Anna is haunted by the shadow of Sarah’s entrapment and her drive for freedom. Perhaps becoming aware of the casualties of her sexual liaison, she returns to a notion of integrity and independence, leaving Mike alone with her character’s wig of auburn curls, in the room where Sarah finally found peace.