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John Fowles' original novel The French Lieutenant's Woman was distinguished by a literary technique that involved telling a story of Victorian sexual and social oppression within the bounds of a 1970s... read more read more... viewpoint. How does one convey this time-frame dichotomy on film? The decision made by director Karel Reisz and Harold Pinter was to frame Fowles' basic plot within a "modern" context of their own making. While we watch as Sarah (Meryl Streep), a 19th-century Englishwoman ruined by an affair with a French lieutenant, enters into another disastrous relationship with principled young Charles (Jeremy Irons), we are constantly made aware that what we're seeing is only a film. This is done by surrounding the story with a modern narrative, focusing on a movie production company which is on location--filming The French Lieutenant's Woman. Meryl Streep doubles in the role of Sara and the American actress who plays her, while Jeremy Irons essays the dual role of Charles and the handsome Briton playing Charles. Likewise, everyone else in the cast is seen as "themselves" and as their French Lieutenant's Woman characters. Not surprisingly, the "real" Streep and Irons enter into an affair which closely parallels their characters' relationship. The commercial TV version of French Lieutenant's Woman eliminates 30 minutes' worth of "extraneous" scenes. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Flixster Users

68% liked it

6,738 ratings

Critics

80% liked it

15 critics

R, 2 hr. 7 min.

Directed by: Karel Reisz

Release Date: August 1, 1981

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DVD Release Date: September 4, 2001

Stats: 297 reviews

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Flixster Reviews (297)


  • February 2, 2011
    This film interweaves two two-character dramas: as adulterous actors film a melodrama about a 19th Century adulterous couple, they begin to develop their own off-the-set feelings.
    As a fan of his stage work and the film The Last Tycoon, I was excited to see more of Harol... read mored Pinter's work, but The French Lieutenant's Woman conspicuously lacks Pinter's characteristic pregnant pauses and focus on subtext. Yes, there's is a short scene between Smithson and his servant when we're to understand that the latter is blackmailing the former, but it's hardly as rich as Pinter's stage work. My expectations notwithstanding, the script provides us with precious few compelling scenes. More importantly, for most of the film I was unsure about why these two stories were being juxtaposed. What is this film saying about relationships and adultery? Sometimes it works, sometimes not? It's destructive? Either way, there's not much to sink our teeth into.
    Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep try their best to wring some meta-textual complexity out of the story, but whereas Roger Ebert sees depth in their performances - he states, "Everything they say and do has another level of meaning, because we know the 'real' relationship between the actors themselves" - I saw actors and characters divorced, separated, as though these were two films that happened to be cut together. Thus, what I think is true of the script is also true of the performances.
    Overall, the film's attempt to become greater than the sum of its parts only leaves us confused.
  • December 9, 2010
    Extremely well done, slow and deliberate unraveling of two intertwined love stories.
  • November 6, 2010
    The two love stories that are the link in this film would have been very boring in their own right, but mix the two, the time differences, the character changes and this film becomes a paradox of itself. It's tough going and not particularly exciting, but with Jeremy Irons and M... read moreeryl Streep it's easy to spot this as a performance driven film.
  • fb721890245
    August 29, 2013
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    Meryl Streep does her best in a meandering film. The TV version apparently is shorter but I doubt that it does much to pick up the slow action in an otherwise dull period piece.
  • fb20312798
    June 12, 2010
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    Well acted, but the modern part of the story is silly and without any real point. That and the ending is a train wreck. Its not all bad, just rather tedious.
  • September 2, 2009
    Sly, self-reflexive adaptation and movie-within-a-movie, having both a fictionalized and a real component complement each other, a meta-fictional technique used to great effect. As well as Harold Pinter's brilliant screenplay, Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons manage to keep their re... read morespective roles distinctive, yet parallel.
  • March 31, 2009
    Fantastic performance from Jeremy Irons, and of course Meryl Streep is flawless. 1981's interpretation of a period piece, contrasted with '81 present day. I became a huge fan of 70s and more early 80s movies, for quality movies - slower pace, more left to the viewer to discover... read more. Brilliant. If you like period pieces and amazing acting, you will like this.
  • August 19, 2010
    Yet again I am plagued with the experiance of rating and reviewing a Meryl Streep film. I suppose the performances were well done, a bit dramatic, but well done. The plot itself was too obvious, and call-able, but it was slightly romantic and sometimes entertaining. I found it we... read morent on too long though, though it wasn't much more than two hours it felt like much more. Overall, an okay film that Meryl Streep fans with like, but others might not.
  • October 21, 2009
    Though this had all the elements needed for a good period romance, it ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The storyline is both simple and complicated but never engaging. Somehow it all just felt clinical. But the sex scene ranks right up there with the most awkward ... read moreI have yet to see (outside of my own bedroom that is)
  • May 7, 2008
    Not having read the book, I can't comment on it's translation to screen, but the movie is very interesting. The jumping back-and-forth in time makes for an interesting symmetry in the lives of the "characters" and the "actors" playing them. Worth seeing.

Critic Reviews


Dennis Schwartz
July 10, 2006
Dennis Schwartz, Ozus' World Movie Reviews

A shallow, confusing and vexing film. Full Review

Emanuel Levy
December 18, 2004
Emanuel Levy, EmanuelLevy.Com

Playing a dual (Oscar-nominated) role, Meryl Streep is much more convincing in the contemporay tale. Full Review

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
January 15, 2002
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice

A gripping psychological study of the war between the sexes that asks the question: Are we happier, wiser, more liberated, than the Victorian characters in the story? Full Review

Dan Jardine
November 13, 2001
Dan Jardine, Daily-Reviews

the film comes off as an academic exercise instead of a living, breathing testament to the ideas it presents.

Scott Weinberg
October 28, 2001
Scott Weinberg, Apollo Guide

It may be a true "chick flick," but as far as those movies go, you could do a hell of a lot worse. Full Review

Christopher Null
August 31, 2001
Christopher Null, Filmcritic.com

Characters don't talk to each other -- they talk to the camera Full Review

February 11, 2006
Time Out

Click to read the article Full Review

Roger Ebert
October 23, 2004
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Click to read the article Full Review

Vincent Canby
May 20, 2003
Vincent Canby, New York Times

Click to read the article Full Review

Carol Cling
November 7, 2003
Carol Cling, Las Vegas Review-Journal

No review available.

Critic ratings and reviews powered by RottenTomatoes.com

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