French Lieutenant’s Woman, The (1981): Karel Reisz-Pinter’s Version of John Fowles, Starring Meryl Streep in her First Best Actress Oscar Nomination and Jeremy Irons

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.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman
French lieutenants woman.jpeg

Original film poster

Our Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Essentially, the film tells two parallel tale of illicit, adulterous affairs, while offering commentary on the mysteries of romantic love, past and present.

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 assume.

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:

Many critics thought that Streep was either miscast or misguided by her director, and Streep herself expressed disappointment with her performance in later years.

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.

Meryl Streep as Sarah Woodruff/Anna
Jeremy Irons as Charles Henry Smithson/Mike
Hilton McRae as Sam
Emily Morgan as Mary
Charlotte Mitchell as Mrs. Tranter
Lynsey Baxter as Ernestina
Jean Faulds as Cook
Peter Vaughan as Mr. Freeman
Colin Jeavons as Vicar
Liz Smith as Mrs. Fairley
Patience Collier as Mrs. Poulteney
John Barrett as Dairyman
Leo McKern as Dr. Grogan
Penelope Wilton as Sonia


Directed by Karel Reisz
Produced by Leon Clore
Written by Harold Pinter, based on the novel, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” by John Fowles
Music by Carl Davis
Cinematography Freddie Francis
Edited by John Bloom
Distributed by United Artists

Release date: September 18, 1981

Running time: 127 minutes
Budget $8 million
Box office $26,890,068