"This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime."
--Robert to Francesca
ClintEastwood's "The Bridges of Madison County" is not about love and notabout sex, but about an idea. The film opens with the information that twopeople once met and fell in love, but decided not to spend the rest of theirlives together. The implication is: If they had acted on their desire, theywould not have deserved such a love.
Almosteverybody knows the story by now. Robert James Waller's novel has been a hugebest-seller. Its prose is not distinguished, but its story is compelling: Heprovides the fantasy of total eroticism within perfect virtue, elevating to aspiritual level the common fantasy in which a virile stranger materializes inthe kitchen of a quiet housewife and takes her into his arms.
Waller'sgift is to make the housewife feel virtuous afterward.
Itis easy to analyze the mechanism, but more difficult to explain why this filmis so deeply moving -- why Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep have made it into awonderful movie love story, playing Robert and Francesca. We know, of course,that they will meet, fall in love and part forever. It is necessary that theypart. If the story had ended "happily" with them running awaytogether, no one would have read Waller's book and no movie would exist. Theemotional peak of the movie is the renunciation, when Francesca does not openthe door of her husband's truck and run to Robert. This moment, and not themoment when the characters first kiss, or make love, is the film's passionateclimax.
WhenEastwood announced that he had bought the novel and planned to direct and starin the movie, eyebrows were raised.
Readershad already cast it in their minds, and not with Eastwood -- or with MerylStreep, for that matter. There is still a tendency to identify Eastwood withhis cowboy and cop roles, and to forget that in recent years he has grown intoone of the most creative forces in Hollywood, both as an actor and a director.He was taking a chance by casting himself as Robert Kincaid, but it pays off ina performance that is quiet, gentle and yet very masculine.
AndStreep wonderfully embodies Francesca Johnson, the Italian woman who findsherself with a husband and children, living on a farm in the middle of a flatIowa horizon. The two of them construct their performances not out of grandgestures, but out of countless subtle little moments of growing love; a timecomes when they are solemn in the presence of the joy that has come to them.
Kincaidis a photographer for National Geographic, shooting a story on the coveredbridges of the county. Francesca's husband and children have left home forseveral days to go to the Illinois State Fair. Photographer and housewife meet,and an awkward but friendly conversation leads to an offer of iced tea; thenshe shyly asks him to stay for dinner.
Oneof the story's mysteries is just when each of them becomes erotically aware ofthe other, and there is a moment, when he goes out to get beer from the car,and she pauses while preparing salad, when she not quite smiles to herself. Sheseems happy; there is a lift in her heart. In another scene, she answers thetelephone and, standing behind him, adjusts his collar, brushes his neck withher finger, and then leaves her hand resting on his shoulder. Very quietly.
Eastwoodand his cinematographer, Jack N. Green, find a wonderful play of light, shadowand candlelight in the key scenes across the kitchen table, with jazz and bluesplaying softly on a radio. They understand that Richard and Francesca are notfalling in love with each other, exactly -- that takes time, when you aremiddle-aged -- but with the idea of their love, with what Richard calls"certainty." One of the sources of the movie's poignancy is that theflowering of the love will be forever deferred; they will know they are rightfor each other, and not follow up on their knowledge.
Robertwants her to leave with him. The notion is enormously attractive to her. Lifeon the farm is "not what I dreamed of when I was a girl." She envieshis life of travel. Not understanding quite how tied she is to the land, hesuggests her husband could take her "on a safari." Her smile showswhat a wild idea that is. "What's he like?" Robert asks. "He'svery clean," she replies. "Hard-working . . . gentle . . . a goodfather."
Andhe is. The story never makes the mistake of portraying Richard Johnson as a badhusband. But we have seen, in an early scene, that there is no conversationaround the Johnson family dinner table. With Robert Kincaid, there is muchconversation; they talk of their ideals, and she says, "But how can youlive for just what you want?" And, quietly, "We are the choices thatwe have made, Robert." And they talk on, quoting Yeats, smoking Camels,dancing to the radio.
Allof the scenes involving Eastwood and Streep find the right notes and shadings.The surrounding story -- involving Francesca's adult son and daughter findingher diaries and reading her story after her death -- is not as successful. Iknow this framing mechanism, added by writer Richard LaGravenese, is necessary;thewhole emotional tone of theromance depends on it belonging to the lost past. And yet Annie Corley andVictor Slezak, as Caroline and Michael, never seem quite real, and Michael'sshock at his mother's behavior, in particular, seems forced, like a storydevice. The payoff at the end -- as they reassess their own lives -- seemsperfunctory.
Butthe central story glows. I've seen the movie twice now and was even moreinvolved the second time, because I was able to pay more attention to thenuances of voice and gesture. Such a story could so easily be vulgarized, couldbe reduced to obvious elements of seduction, sex and melodramatic parting.Streep and Eastwood weave a spell, and it is based on that particular knowledgeof love and self that comes with middle age. Younger characters might have runoff together. Older ones might not have dared to declare themselves.
"TheBridges of Madison County" is about two people who find the promise ofperfect personal happiness, and understand, with sadness and acceptance, thatthe most important things in life are not always about making yourself happy.
There’s an old truism that it’s easier to make a great movie from a mediocre book than to make even a good movie from a masterpiece. That may explain the wonderful alchemy that occurred when director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese adapted Robert James Waller’s bestselling romance novel The Bridges Of Madison County in 1995. On the page, Waller’s story comes across as sappy and under-baked, sending an idealized version of manhood (reportedly based on Waller himself) into rural Iowa, where he touches the life (and body) of a lonely Italian immigrant. On the screen, with Eastwood playing worldly National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid and Meryl Streep playing farmer’s wife Francesca Johnson, The Bridges Of Madison County blooms. Eastwood and LaGravenese adopt the rough form of classic movie melodramas like Brief Encounter or All That Heaven Allows, but render the clichés so realistically that the ache runs deeper.
What’s especially remarkable about the movie version of The Bridges Of Madison County is that Eastwood and LaGravenese didn’t substantially alter the source material. Eastwood originally planned only to play Kincaid, and not to direct the film. But when the first director, Bruce Beresford, commissioned a new script that Eastwood and his co-producer Kathleen Kennedy felt strayed too far from the book, Eastwood stepped in, and returned to LaGravenese’s more faithful draft.
The biggest change LaGravenese made to Waller’s novel was to modify the book’s framing device. The movie opens with Francesca’s grown children returning to the family farm after she dies, and discovering a cache of mementos of Robert Kincaid, along with three journals written by Francesca to her kids, explaining the four-day affair she had with the photographer back in the 1960s. LaGravenese’s structure lets Eastwood vary the tone of The Bridges Of Madison County by periodically returning to the present day to show how Francesca’s story is affecting her son and daughter, who are each having their own marital troubles. Otherwise, the movie follows the novel’s plot, with Robert rolling into Madison County to photograph the bridges, and developing an instant rapport with the woman who gives him directions.
The Bridges Of Madison County’s faithfulness works against it only when Francesca and Robert begin to realize their whirlwind romance has to end, because Francesca’s husband and children are due to return from their trip to the state fair. When the emotion boils over, and Francesca is yelling at Robert for being so cool and rootless—while Robert is guilt-tripping Francesca for not being willing to run away with him—the film comes closest to feeling forced and phony. But that’s mainly because Eastwood and LaGravenese (and Streep, for that matter) excel elsewhere at making the movie’s more contrived moments feel natural.
A lot of that has to do with the location. Shot mostly in Iowa, using the real bridges and an actual farmhouse, the movie picks up the textures of real life without even needing to try particularly hard. Eastwood and cinematographer Jack Green don’t make the images overly stylized or lush; instead, they get that the power of this story is in the way it plays out in a creaky old pickup truck, and in a kitchen stocked with mismatched ceramic butter dishes and embroidered dish-towels. The Bridges Of Madison County is about the sensuality of the everyday: the sweat of an Iowa summer, the taste of a cold soda from a steel cooler, the sensation of drinking a glass of beer while soaking in a bathtub, and so on. Eastwood and Green’s simple approach pays off with the movie’s most emotionally devastating scene, where Francesca sits in her husband’s truck in the pouring rain, and hesitantly reaches for the door, thinking hard about running after Robert.
Eastwood and his longtime editor Joel Cox also pace The Bridges Of Madison County masterfully, letting the scenes of Francesca alone on the farm play out with long silences, and letting the scenes between Francesca and Robert build slowly and casually. The effect of all of these choices is that it’s easier to see how Francesca could get swept up in the moment. And Streep rises to the challenge of holding the center of the screen for the bulk of a 135-minute movie. When she’s talking with Robert, Streep’s Francesca is funny and refreshingly honest, with an eruptive laugh that convulses her whole body. When Francesca is by herself, Streep is able to convey with just a glance toward the window or the road that she’s thinking about Robert, feeling giddy and irritable knowing he’s out there in the world as a physical presence, not just a fantasy.
At one point in the movie, Robert describes his job for National Geographic as making sure his pictures are in focus, with “not too much personal comment,” which may seem like a fair description of Eastwood’s style. Except that there’s actually a lot of personal feeling in The Bridges Of Madison County, and not just in Streep’s performance, or from Eastwood loading up the soundtrack with dreamy old torch songs. The strength of Eastwood’s Bridges is in its patience, and how it lets the love story develop from start to finish, even though the audience knows from the beginning the broad strokes of what’s going to happen. That savoring of every moment between Robert and Francesca makes it all the more agonizing when Francesca gets a phone call or a visit from a neighbor, eating away at the too-brief time she has left with her soulmate. In a lot of ways, The Bridges Of Madison County is about how time can tick away, right when people most need it to stand still.
The new Bridges Of Madison County Blu-ray edition looks and sounds terrific, and that sound mix matters a lot, since the film is dominated by long quiet stretches, punctuated by beautiful music. The disc adds a commentary track by Green and Cox, who give insiders’ view of Eastwood’s methods, which he tends not to talk about much himself. The Blu-ray also contains an informative behind-the-scenes featurette, including interviews with all the cast members and major creative personnel. Streep comes off the best in these interviews. The actors who played Francesca’s grown children describe how she insisted on meeting them in person, so they would feel her character’s absence, and Streep praises Eastwood for excising his own “Oscar scenes” and going for something more understated. Streep then delivers one of the most cogent appreciations of the film when she jokingly complains that for all the dialogue in The Bridges Of Madison County, fans of the movie most remember the image of Francesca fiddling with that door handle. That’s the effect visual simplicity can have: making the smaller moments more indelible.