Bright Lights Film Journal

“Secret Energy and Vital Intelligence”: On Karel Reisz’s Adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)

What’s remarkable, in both book and film, is how the metafictional elements do not detract from our emotional investment in the straightforward fiction. Where Fowles’ interjected commentary and authorial intrusions form a symbiosis with his storytelling, Pinter’s interwoven contemporary story does a similar tight dance with the Victorian. Yet the 1981 scenes do not form another movie within a movie; they are there to energize and elaborate our perceptions of the 1860s story, which is the main meal here.

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The Criterion Collection’s recent issue of The French Lieutenant’s Woman on Blu-ray and DVD (from a 2K restoration) reminds us of how strikingly beautiful Karel Reisz’s film was when it was released in 1981. But it also takes some of us to task for forgetting that there’s never been a movie quite like it.

If I were John Fowles in 1981 watching the completed film adaptation of my 1969 novel, I believe I’d have to feel pleased. It appears that Fowles had the freedom to hang around the production a fair amount of time, but supposedly only in a soft role of advisor, correcting, for example, bits of word usage for screenwriter Harold Pinter. According to Pinter himself, Fowles enlightened him in one instance that a Victorian manservant would never use the expletive “bloody” when speaking to his master. As he read Pinter’s screenplay and watched the film come to fruition, how could Fowles not be gratified at how much of the novel’s inner workings and thematic threads were being faithfully transmuted into cinematic equivalents?

When we listen to the interviews conducted for a 1981 TV episode of The South Bank Show – included on Criterion’s disc – it seems clear that Pinter, and director Karel Reisz, experienced little meddling from the author. Individually conducted, the interviews of each of them – author, screenwriter, and filmmaker – are surprisingly revelatory of creative process and intent, not to mention their collaborative ease with each other. Also on display is a lot of erudition; all three of these men are intense thinkers and simply know their stuff, plus a lot more. Fowles in particular comes across as an old school intellectual, in the academic or scholarly sense, researching his novel’s Victorian era as diligently as any historian would for a nonfiction survey of it.

In the writing of his novel, Fowles’ intent (never mind his process) is the most complex of the three. But without categorizing the work as postmodern or metafiction – two labels, it seems, nearly impossible to avoid in any current assessment of either book or film – it’s still surprising to find how eminently readable it is, considering how multilayered – or rather multiframed – its conception.

In spite of its intricacy, the novel seems to have been born, quite simply, out of Fowles’ fascination with Victorian literature, a fascination from which he evokes a faux Victorian novel, taking on the elaborately constructed, densely descriptive prose style of a period writer like Thomas Hardy, with an authorial voice, like Hardy’s, of learned, sometimes bemused, omniscience.

John Fowles

Beginning his story in a dated style is one frame that’s shortly overlapped by another, when the text becomes as much commentary as narrative, comparing manners, culture, and mores of the Victorian age with those of his own, that of the 1960s. As the accommodating reader has now fully realized he’s being taken on a ride, Fowles, in the digressive chapter, number 13, steps into the text himself to tell you that the jig is up. In this last overriding frame, Fowles, as author of this work, throws open the curtain on the whole enterprise of fiction writing by exposing the levers and wires of his craft as a 20th-century author. His characters, the author demurs, are at once creatures of his imagination and beings acting free of it.

By denying his omniscience he admits undercutting the assumption with which we began his novel, and the one we’ve taken, unwittingly he believes, with any Victorian novel: “If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and “voice” of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God.”1 Instead, he argues, no novelist is God, especially in the 20th century: his characters must have some autonomy, a freedom that allows them, 47 chapters later, to wander into the novel’s two diverse endings.2 The business of the two endings – reader, take your pick! – allowed the newly published novel a little notoriety (which probably helped sales) while making the book appear unlikely to be adapted properly for a film, if indeed it ever would be.

But lo and behold the film did appear, and in its very first shot managed to establish the novel’s all-encompassing frame of it being – shall we say after all – metafiction, by announcing: you are watching a film being made. Meryl Streep appears in her hooded cloak as the character Sarah Woodruff and, as an assistant holds a mirror to her face, touches up her makeup. A clapper designates a scene to be shot, in which we see Streep, as an actress playing Sarah, filmed as she ascends the steps to a stone promontory in low light. The shot never appears as the Victorian story unfolds, yet we might assume later that it represents the dawn of the day in which Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons) and his fiancée Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter) observe the outcast French lieutenant’s woman in her mysterious, and precarious, outlook at the tip of The Cobb – the ancient stone seawall that curves outward from the harbor of Lyme Regis in southern England.

In their fidelity to Fowles’ storyline, Pinter and Reisz manage to include nearly all of the novelist’s plot points, which carry Charles from his first fatal eye contact with Sarah on The Cobb to his final meeting with her years later. A staunch Darwinist and an amateur paleontologist, Charles prides himself on being a forward thinker with something of a progressive social conscience – which gets tapped when he learns of the tribulations of Sarah Woodruff, the woman he’d seen and accosted on The Cobb. Branded as the abandoned lover of a French seaman, Sarah has been cast out from all levels of Lyme society. For its upper class, the tag “French lieutenant’s woman” is a euphemistic rephrasing of the lower classes’ denomination of her as “the French lieutenant’s whore.”

Once having encountered each other – and met thereafter – in Lyme’s indigenous wilderness (known as the Ware Commons), Charles’ charitable intentions toward Sarah merge with erotic ones, to which Sarah responds in a strange mixture of repressed longing and manipulative distance. In effect, Sarah – while hinting she has sexual feelings for Charles – coolly uses his obsessional need for her as a tactical device to extricate herself from her position as a destitute fallen woman, who, once labeled as such, must either yield to servitude as a domestic (if she’s lucky), or more likely become a prostitute. After paying for her temporary relocation outside Lyme in Exeter, Charles makes the fateful decision to visit her in seclusion, and Sarah, feigning a sprained ankle, presents herself as passively seductive and carnally available, sitting in front of the fire in nothing but her nightgown. As Charles would know, this is a scandalous state of dishabille with which to welcome any unchaperoned male caller.

It all proves too much for his bottled libido, however, and Sarah achieves the result she had obviously planned for: Charles – in one of the least sensual sex scenes ever filmed – has his way with her, discovering in the hurried act that she has been no one’s woman/whore, that he has in fact deflowered a virgin. Catastrophe ensues when Charles, planning to make Sarah his wife, returns to Lyme to break his engagement with Ernestina, whose father then swiftly makes plans to wreak legal, public humiliation on Charles. Finding that Sarah has gone to earth – and his life as an English gentleman in shambles – he searches for her high and low; years pass until a private investigator locates her, and the two are finally facing each other once again, the broken romance begging resolution.

Reportedly, the film did well at the box office, but critics were divided, some of them viewing it as all too clever by half. What especially raised eyebrows like Vincent Canby’s was Pinter’s conceiving a full-blown story of an affair between the two star actors of the film-within-a film, Mike and Anna, that parallels and notably contrasts with the 19th-century romance between Charles and Sarah.

As the Victorian story proceeds, the film toggles to its 20th-century one and back again. Then, in something of a bravura finish, the film’s two narratives allow for two endings – like the novel’s, one happy, one not – but unlike the novel, one ending for each century’s story, with neither of them needing to depend upon the book’s socio-literary undercarriage. Whereas Fowles partly intends his narrative, and its endings, to be somewhat like a teaching aid to his commentary on Victorian culture and sexual ethos,3 Pinter and Reisz intend a dramatic contrast4 between how each pair of lovers behave and end up in their respective centuries.

In his New York Times review, Canby expressed disappointment that the film couldn’t somehow bring forth Fowles’ deftly performed pedagogical accomplishment: “[The film] illuminates nothing more about the differences between the manners and mores of 1867 and 1981 than any reasonably alert 1981 adult might be expected to bring into the movie theater uninstructed.”

I’m sure Pinter and Reisz saw the impossibility of retaining this level of Fowles’ work, unless they adopted an authorial voice-over device, like the one that Martin Scorsese would unfortunately elect to use for his The Age of Innocence (1993). As a film, The French Lieutenant’s Woman does not mean to instruct, but instead uses its contrasting visualizations of two very different, time-divided societies to vividly portray the culturally enmeshed tribulations of one pair of lovers against the other. It’s not so much that we learn more than we might already know of these “manners and mores” as we feel the weight of them on Charles and Sarah and, also, the result of the relative lightness of them on Mike and Anna. If in 1981, Mike is made wretched by the sexual freedoms gained by women in the 20th century, Sarah strategizes how not to become a victim of the lack of such freedoms in the 19th.

In her introduction to the 2000 Penguin edition of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, scholar Rosemarie Morgan (Yale University) says this about the Victorian male: “It is also that, despite being doubly empowered by virtue of class privilege and masculine authority, he still hungers after the female life-force – the woman’s secret energy and vital intelligence – to the ugly point of feeding upon it and mutilating it.”

In spite of Charles’ liberal attitudes concerning the treatment of outcast women – and Sarah is only a perceived fallen woman – Morgan’s description neatly fits the nature of his desire for her. His high-minded goal to rescue her is actually a need to possess her. He indeed wants to feed on her “secret energy and vital intelligence,” and Sarah, in spite of her feelings for him, wants to sidestep this “mutilating” hunger.

In Sarah Woodruff, Fowles has created a Hardy-esqe heroine that was out of Hardy’s range of vision. It’s plausible for a self-aware, creative woman like Sarah – strategizing the survival of her threatened individualism – to have existed in 1867, but she would not be found in Hardy’s sexual politic. Hardy could not have conceived of a woman who could so fully define herself apart from a man. Sarah’s concept of herself, along with her behavior, is essentially avant-garde for a Victorian woman; she is a modern female thrust dissonantly by Fowles into that age. Sarah is “infinitely strange” even to herself.

Yet Sarah’s need for self-identifying freedom, her willingness to act, and her ability to keep her own sexual desires compartmentalized apart from her defense of a freestanding identity could be seen as having their roots in Hardy’s female protagonists, most especially Bathsheba Everdene of Far from the Madding Crowd. Hardy’s women struggle mightily within the male zeitgeist of their age, only to become victims of it like Tess D’Urberville or to seek a compromised domestic peace within it like Bathsheba.

But Bathsheba takes the struggle as far as she can. In Far from the Madding Crowd’s fourth chapter, the teenage Bathsheba rejects Gabriel Oak’s rash marriage proposal, denying that she’s ever been anyone’s sweetheart because she’d “hate [Hardy’s italics] to be thought men’s property in that way,” while averring in the same sentence that “possibly I shall be to be had some day.”5 Late in the story, when her least successful suitor, gentleman farmer William Boldwood, demands to know her exact feelings toward him, she demurs. “It’s difficult,” she says, “for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”6 Sarah is rarely so articulate about her own dilemma, but she speaks to much the same sentiment with Charles in the first of Fowles’ endings (to be discussed later).

When at the climax of Hardy’s novel the deep-rooted Oak does have Bathsheba, who’s had her provocative willfulness knocked out of her by a series of grim events, it’s a resolution that – while John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation treats it as decidedly happy-ever-after – the author allows for tonal ambiguity. The nuptials take place on a “damp, disagreeable morning,”7 and after them Bathsheba is not radiating joy. When expected to laugh, she can only smile wanly.

Streep’s Sarah never laughs and only smiles once, seemingly out of character and therefore memorably, in the penultimate scene of the Victorian story. The smile’s context makes it stand out, in that it comes when Charles loses his temper with Sarah – over her remaining hidden when she could have sought him out – and throws her to the floor. Raising herself up from a slight knock on the head, she gives herself a faint, knowing smile (it’s not meant for Charles), as if saying in an aside, “I knew this was coming, but this is perhaps how the future begins.” An instantly contrite Charles rushes to her aid, the walls erected by betrayal and mistrust are breached, and intimacy is restored.

Streep, in a 2015 interview for the Criterion disc, pushes the gesture toward the metafictional, proposing that the smile is a bit of the actress, Anna, seeping through Sarah. More likely it was a bit of Streep seeping through her performance as Sarah – perhaps in a bumbled take that Reisz decided to use after all, to allow for the effect Streep mentions. Whether the smile comes from Anna or Streep, it throws our perception of the character away from the Victorian age and into an era when a woman could respond to the flailing of a wounded male not with fear, or tears of regret, or a messy display of her own righteous anger, but with this small expression of wry acceptance that owes no obeisance to the male in the room.

Elizabeth Siddal by Rosetti

Once we see the liberated, self-assured Sarah occupying her airy, sunny, all-white studio, lined with her own drawings – and take in her knowing smile – we can look back on the tragic, lost Sarah of Lyme as being at least one part performance to the two parts of real dilemma and destitution. Streep’s costumes and makeup heighten the character’s presence as tragic and forlorn. Along with her deep-cowled cloak and dun-colored frock, Streep wears a wig of long russet tresses that, coupled with the actress’s eyes projecting an incurable sorrow, gives Sarah Woodruff the air of a Pre-Raphaelite model, possibly referencing Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse, Elizabeth Siddal.8 In Rosetti’s Beata Beatrix, Siddal, like Sarah the outcast, is the very image of a woman despairing, yearning, suffering her fate.

Streep, then, plays a woman who herself is often performing. Nowhere is this layering more acutely rendered than in her long narrative monologue that she delivers to Charles on a rendezvous in the wilds of the Ware Commons. Over her long career, Meryl Streep has often taken criticism that – especially in her use of various accents – her acting is too stylized, too actorly, and watching this scene for the first time, it’s possible to get the same impression. The actress seems artificially aiming for an effect until, you realize, it’s Sarah who’s aiming for an effect on her audience, Charles. Streep appears to be following, with precision, Fowles’ description of the nature of her delivery:

She spoke as one unaccustomed to sustained expression, with odd small pauses between each clipped tentative sentence; whether to allow herself to think ahead or to allow him to interrupt, Charles could not tell.9

Manipulating him through his desire for her while fully aware of his innate kindness and impulse to do the right thing, Sarah goes the distance with her French lieutenant’s woman/whore persona, lying outright by stating, “I gave myself to him.” What Streep adds to Sarah’s delivery is the self-conscious air of an unrehearsed performance, as if Sarah wishes to frame the enhanced story of her degradation with a certain theatrical grandeur. She delivers her story, including the lie of her deflowering, like two acts of a melodrama, the third act of which Charles will have to write with her. Anticipating a participation in her drama, she senses correctly, will both turn Charles on and cement his need to rescue her.

Sarah performs

Sarah’s duplicity here calls into question some of her previous behavior in Lyme – such as posting herself at the tip of The Cobb as if awaiting her lover’s return. Had this been mere posing for effect, as if she wanted to encourage the entire village’s assumption that she “gave herself to him,” that she was therefore an unreachable tragedy, a lost cause?

In a scene during Sarah’s unhappy tenure as a domestic, the film presents an image of Sarah, having just finished drawing a demonic self-portrait, studying herself in the mirror like an actress judging the effectiveness of her makeup, costuming, and demeanor: “Do I look desperate enough, do I look lost enough – am I the very image of a lost lady?” Shortly after this scene she disobeys her mistress’s injunctions not to take solitary walks either in the harbor or in the Ware Commons, deliberate actions that will ensure her dismissal, after which she’ll be placed wholly at the mercy of Charles’ charity.

Yet Sarah is not out merely to destroy Charles’ life so that she may rebuild hers. It’s clear to Charles and to us that she has strong feelings for him – loves him, in fact. But when he stops off to visit her at the Exeter retreat he has paid for – a visit that Charles believes is impromptu on his end but that Sarah has planned for as inevitable – she presents him with a “swarm of mysteries.”10 And we’re as confused as Charles.

Why, after Charles has successfully liberated her from the moral and financial straits of Lyme, does she then give herself to him, thereby having him learn in such a way the truth of her virginity, while simultaneously granting him the position of the man who has now, in actuality, made her a fallen woman? Why, in post-coital confession mode, does she come clean about her past, which gives him hope of mutual trust and affection and therefore possibly a future with him – and then disappear? Assuming, as she later admits to Charles, that he would return to marry Ernestina, why not simply disappear before Charles has a chance to visit her?

These are important confusions, however, especially as neither book nor film feels a need to untangle them, and both have good reasons not to. Nothing appears to hold Sarah back from wanting to have sex with Charles – a shocking wantonness for any woman, single or married, of that era – but she believes simultaneously that no long-term relationship with him is possible. Sarah’s actions are caught between her need to manipulate Charles and her love for him within this context of hopelessness. Neither one of them knows what’s coming or going. When Charles catches up with Sarah twenty months later, she qualifies her Exeter behavior by explaining, “A madness was in me at that time.” In the novel, even as she moves to reconcile with Charles, Sarah further explains that she is “not to be understood.”11

In some rapid dialog, the adaptation skillfully condenses the reasons the novel’s Sarah gives for her isolated selfhood. Although, when Sarah answers Charles’ angry questions about her disappearance with a simple declaration that she needed “to find my own life,” it unfortunately sounds like a standard kiss-off from a ’70s Dear John letter. Then, a bit too soon it seems, their back and forth confrontation ends with her plea for him to forgive her, which he cannot but oblige her. With his two endings, however, Fowles creates a far more ambivalent Sarah, with a fuller range of complex reasons in conflict with her still ardent feelings for Charles.

In the first of the author’s endings, the “happy” one, Fowles has Sarah – before she presents him with their baby girl – initially resist Charles with a sentiment similar to that which Bathsheba denies Gabriel Oak’s proposal in Far from the Madding Crowd: “I wish to be what I am, not what a husband, however kind, however indulgent, must expect me to become in marriage.”12 But with the introduction of the child, their continuance as a couple is made only implicit, not settled. In the second ending, Charles rejects Sarah’s implied proposal for a platonic friendship (no baby is presented) and simply walks out on her, realizing he has his own life to live, something of a “don’t push the river, it flows by itself” sentiment. Intruding again, Fowles, by begging his readers to not think of this ending as less plausible than the first, hints with a wink at favoring it.

Readers of the novel may feel the film’s reconciliation of Charles and Sarah is rushed and too pat – and too happy – but here the adaptation of the 1860s story must necessarily swing away from Fowles, whose laconic treatment of the lovers’ heads or tails, resolve/dissolve won’t translate cinematically. The film’s Victorian ending, in which Charles rows the two of them through a symbolic archway onto the broad expanse of a lake, while visually lush, might be considered simplistic and sudden – but is it?

Before its release, anyone anticipating a film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman would likely be looking forward to one that would dramatize the Victorian plot without an innovation like Pinter’s two-plot structure. Necessarily a straightforward adaptation like this would choose one of Fowles’ two endings, and if its plot ran to Fowles’ first ending, the brisk optimistic wrap-up – with its very pretty final image – would fail to satisfy, much less give the tale any broader significance. Fowles’ novel would thus be reduced to a PBS period romance. In Pinter/Reisz’s adaptation, it’s up to the interwoven 1981 conclusion to give the Victorian (and the film’s) conclusion a resonance that clicks a bit with the novel’s but carries its own meld of meaning.

In the contemporary sequences, which have a flatter lighting design and a brisker pace than the Victorian ones, Streep’s ’80s haircut wipes clean all traces of the Pre-Raphaelite Sarah. Stubbornly, the film refuses to give the character of the actress any depth whatsoever, and Streep obliges, underplaying Anna as much as she ups her thespian amperage as Sarah. Opaque like Sarah but lacking her mystique, Anna is simply a rather uninteresting American actress doing her job. Her affair with British co-star Mike has the banal transience of any film production hookup, except that the good-looking but rather feckless Mike takes it way too seriously.

Some of Mike and Anna’s scenes have them rehearsing bits that show up fully executed as their performances in the film. But there are also scenes of the entire cast socializing – as at the dinner party hosted by Mike and his wife and the film-within-a-film’s wrap-up party – where we see some of the character actors, shorn of makeup and Victorian costume, assuming real-life personas. Portly Leo McKern, as the actor who plays the morally centered Dr. Grogan, drinks too much and looks rather ridiculous dancing with his much younger female co-stars, while Patience Collier, otherwise Sarah’s harridan mistress, Mrs. Poulteney, comes across as a kindly old lady with an especial fondness for young children.

Anna and Mike

As Anna rushes from Mike’s bed to get on set, we receive scattered glimpses, in bland 20th-century sunlight, of the real, contemporary Lyme Regis before it’s tailored by carefully chosen evocative weather and light to resemble the 19th-century town. All this goes toward a lifting of a veil on the fakery we accept as actuality when we watch a movie, somewhat as Fowles does with his wisenheimer exposé of fiction writing in his chapter 13.

But what’s remarkable, in both book and film, is how these metafictional elements do not detract from our emotional investment in the straightforward fiction. Where Fowles’ interjected commentary and authorial intrusions form a symbiosis with his storytelling, Pinter’s interwoven contemporary story does a similar tight dance with the Victorian. Yet the 1981 scenes do not form another movie within a movie; they are there to energize and elaborate our perceptions of the 1860s story, which is the main meal here.

Directly after the scene of Charles and Sarah’s rediscovery of each other in her sunlit studio, the film jumps to the final dissolution of Mike and Anna’s affair, in which Anna has the upper hand. Unlike Charles and Sarah’s final heated confrontation, no discussion is needed here: Anna – in a mirroring action to Sarah’s desertion of Charles in Exeter – simply leaves her befuddled lover.

It happens in the middle of the wrap-up party, which is being held at the same Arts and Crafts mansion, Broad Lys,13 where the previous scene had been shot. Dangling from a window, Mike watches Anna roar away in a sports car with her husband. Muffled by the sound of the car accelerating, he calls out for Sarah, not Anna, slyly hinting that Mike, bored with his own marriage, may have projected a bit of Sarah’s aura – that “secret energy and vital intelligence” – onto Anna, a bleeding together of the two women that parallels the subtle reveal of Anna within Sarah that occurs in the previous 19th-century scene.

Anna, I would guess, has realized all along that her dalliance with Mike would only last the duration of the film’s production. Perhaps she also senses how the affair might translate into verifiable chemistry on the screen – following the truism that the sexual attraction between real-life lovers – think Garbo and John Gilbert (but not necessarily Taylor and Burton) – can fuel the authenticity of their performances. Thus, Anna, even as she enjoys the secretive thrill of sleeping with Mike, can still be pragmatic about the usefulness, the limits, and the insubstantial nature of the romance.

She may discard Mike without much ado – their romance has merely been that cliché, a fleeting affair between movie actors – but the 19th-century Sarah, taking enormous emotional risks, exploits Charles, and abandons him, in order to rescue her fundamental self, while only discovering, after a span of years, who and what he might be to her.

Some critics panned what they saw as the flatness of the contemporary characters along with the blandness of the modern story, but these factors are all to the point. In the making of the movie, as well as in the shallow romance of its co-stars, illusion and temporality reign – whereas in the filmed fiction, decisions and actions in the search for real human connection have life-altering consequences. From Mike’s vantage we watch Anna’s vanishing from his life, the speediness of which cuts directly to the hushed tranquility of the Victorian lovers’ slow rowboat glide into continuance and possibility.

UK/1981/123 min./Color/Monaural sound/1.85/1 Aspect ratio. Released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection in 2015.

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Note: All images except for the poster are screenshots from Criterion’s Blu-ray.

  1. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. New York: Back Bay Books, 2010, p. 95. []
  2. Earlier on, Fowles projects a course of action by his protagonist that would make yet another ending, but he then disavows it. []
  3. Plus commentary on Victorian literature and literature in general. []
  4. Drama as in dramaturgy, in this case that of a movie. []
  5. Hardy, Thomas. Far from the Madding Crowd. London: Penguin Books, 2000, p. 26. []
  6. Ibid., p. 308. []
  7. Ibid., p. 351. []
  8. In the novel, but not the film, Charles finds Sarah enjoying the patronage of the famous painter and exploring her own creativity while posing for him, in the wake of Siddal’s death. []
  9. Fowles, p. 168. []
  10. Ibid., p. 355. []
  11. Ibid., p. 452. []
  12. Ibid., p. 450. []
  13. Designed by Charles Voysey, 1898, the setting and its style is anachronistic for the 1860s. []