Oscar Movies: French Lieutenant's Woman, The (1981)

John Fowles’ best-selling novel was remarkable not only for the painfully romantic story it told, but also for the author’s 20th Century observations, which were threaded throughout the 19th Century story.




It took nearly two decades and no less an artist than Harold Pinter to transfer this challenging and complex literary work to the screen. As directed by Czech-born and British based Karel Reisz, the film transforms the author’s voice into yet another story.




Fowles’ period tale of Sarah’s betrayal by humanity is frequently interrupted by a less compelling story of a 20th Century actress’ affair with her co-star in a film called The French Lieutenant.


Though clever, the device does not work, and the movie qualifies as an interesting and audacious failure.




The modern scenes, with their depiction of the couple’s offscreen affair, do not shed any light on the principal tale, which is engrossing and emotional enough to demand the spot light.




Meryl Streep received her first Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing the dual role of Sarah and Anne (the actress), a role that many (including author Fowles)had hoped Vanessa Redgrave would play.




Rapidly rising star Streep chose British actor Jeremy Irons, better known then for his starring role in the TV series “Brideshead Revisited” to play the romantic lead, a man captivated by Sarah’s (and Anne’s) dilemmas.




Presented simultaneously from two perspectives, the tale is marred by peculiar endings. Pinter and Reisz try to solve the problem of the dual point of view and antithetical twin endings by inventing another story, that of the actors performing the roles of the hero and heroine.




Technical values are good, particularly Freddie Francis’ cinematography, which lends each era a distinctive visual look.




Oscar Nominations: 5




Best Actress: Meryl Streep


Screenplay (Adapted): Harold Pinter


Art Direction-Set Decoration: Assheton Gorton; Ann Mollo


Film Editing: John Bloom


Costume design: Tom Rand




Oscar Awards: None




Oscar Context:




The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was the vet Katharine Hepburn for “On Golden Pond,” which also won the Adapted Screenplay. Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” won the Art Direction and Editing (by Michael Kahn). Milena Canonero won the Costume Design Oscar for “Chariots of Fire,” which was the surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar.