Following Meryl's Oscar-winning turn in 1979's Kramer vs Kramer, she apparently told either her manager or publicist to find something really juicy for her. Up to that point, Streep had enjoyed only supporting roles in film, so Karel Reisz's filming of the 1969 novel The French Lieutenant's Woman (John Fowles) became the perfect project for her debut as a leading lady.
The film, like many others, had apparently taken years of rewrites and had to overcome multiple financial obstacles to reach the screen. When it finally got the green light, Meryl was cast along with British actor Jeremy Irons for the dual lead roles of Sarah/Anna and Charles/Mike.
I imagine that one of the draws for Meryl at the time was that the screenplay sort of followed a story within a story. Anna is a film actress having an affair with her co-star, Mike. The film they're working on involves two people involved in a scandalous relationship in Victorian England. In the Victorian sequences, Sarah Woodruff finds herself out of a job as her employer has died. Woodruff has a reputation for having had a previous affair with a French Lieutenant, and as such has become sort of an outcast. Charles, a paleontologist, falls for Sarah, despite his own engagement to another woman.
Charles breaks off his engagement only to discover that Sarah has disappeared. Simultaneously, Anna struggles with how to negotiate her affair with Mike, as she's currently already married to someone else. Sarah has a new job as a governess and eventually writes to Charles. The two sort of reconcile and are seen at the close of the film ending up together. Anna and Mike don't seem to fare as well, as Anna leaves from the film's wrap party with her husband without saying goodbye to Mike.
Whew. It gets a bit tricky delineating the two storylines, and I've give a fairly basic recap of the plot. I struggle to compile my thoughts on how to describe my views on this film. I often tend to approach Meryl's film choices and performances from a perspective of how tickled I am by something new she does, or how unexpected or difficult I imagine the role to be. Meryl herself has been on record that's she's not particularly fond of this performance. Looking back, she apparently found that she never quite knew if she was succeeding at the role. "Was I just the French lieutenant's woman? Or the actress being the French lieutenant's woman? Or the actress being the actress being the French lieutenant's woman?" That question is an interesting one and therefore appealing to me as a viewer and fan.
I suppose we'll never know for sure to what extent any sense of holding back or perhaps what many have criticized as a certain "rigidity" in Meryl's performance as Sarah was her interpretation of Sarah, or her interpretation of how Anna would interpret Sarah. Is that even possible to know? If anyone could figure it out I suspect Meryl at least went into it with some idea. I watched the movie this past weekend with my husband, Joe (who somehow had never been forced to watch it with me before), and he made the comment about how we perhaps get a glimpse into Meryl's magic when she's rehearsing a scene in the film (as Anna) and we see her sort of transform into Sarah. If we want to be convinced of Sarah as a character, I have to think that Meryl made the choice of breathing life into Sarah as well as Meryl the actor could do. Are we to assume that the actress Anna is as good of an actress as Meryl? Would Meryl dare act less well as Sarah because Meryl thought maybe Anna would not be quite as good an actor as Meryl was herself? That's where my brain kind of goes sideways.
Just having to figure that out as an actor is pretty impressive to me. Frankly, it's the only real interesting thing I found in rewatching this. It's pace is incredibly slow. And although it tackles themes of female oppression in Victorian England, I often found myself easily to drifting off into other thoughts.
The film was actually well received by critics groups. It had five Oscar nominations and a staggering eleven BAFTA noms. Meryl won Lead Actress in a Drama at the Golden Globes, as well as for BAFTA. She was the front-runner for the Oscar as well (her first lead nod), but ultimately lost to Katharine Hepburn, who took her record-breaking fourth statuette for her performance in On Golden Pond. Interestingly, having written this post, it's the first time I really considered how if Meryl had won for this film, she'd have three lead actress wins and one supporting, while Katharine Hepburn would have three lead (one being a tie). They currently seem so far apart in their Oscar tallies, but it's wild to think how very close Meryl came to being the standalone top recipient for acting honors from the Academy Awards.