books to film

Book versus movie: Meryl Streep is the best thing about ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’

Karel Reisz’s version of the John Fowles novel, based on the Harold Pinter screenplay, is a not always successful film within a film.

Her name is Sarah Woodruff. Sympathisers identify her as “poor Tragedy” and scandal mongers have labelled her “the French Lieutenant’s whore”. In the small fishing village of Lyme Regis in South England, the penurious Sarah often walks alone on a windy promontory. When she is not dangerously close to the swirling waters of the Cobb, she is found wandering beneath the dense green boughs of the Undercliff. A striking young woman with “uncanny” intelligence and perspicacity, she reads “far more fiction and far more poetry, those two sanctuaries of the lonely, than most of her kind”.

It is believed that after a lover’s betrayal she suffers from a medical condition – “obscure melancholia.”

Charles Smithson, a young paleontologist, is drawn to the mysterious Sarah. “I feel like a man possessed against his will – against all that is better in his character,” he confesses. As he grows more and more obsessed with her, he becomes “increasingly unsure of the frontier between the real Sarah and the Sarah he had created in so many such dreams: the one Eve personified, all mystery and love and profundity, and the other a half scheming, half crazed governess from an obscure seaside town”. In pursuit of Sarah, Charles gambles away his sanity, his fiancée and his reputation as a “gentleman”.

There are two endings to John Fowles’s bestselling novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1968), one more predictable than the other and neither without complexity. But Fowles has much to offer besides protagonists struggling in the wet iron grip of Lyme Bay. His spoof-like depiction of Victorian England captures all the cant and pompous Puritanism that go with silk cravats and satin bustles.

John Fowles. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
John Fowles. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Persuaded by the vicar and believing herself a genuine benefactor, dowager Mrs Poulteney prepares to offer Sarah the conditional position of companion. On the day of Sarah’s interview, Fowles tells us, “the ferns looked greenly forgiving: but Mrs. Poulteney was whitely the contrary.” Never an omniscient or ubiquitous narrator, Fowles often chats intimately with his reader, sharing his surprise at what his own characters think, feel or even do. Allusions to Darwin, Freud and Dickens – reformers of a world to come – are not without significance as they ultimately establish Sarah and Charles to be individuals ahead of their time.

Detailed descriptions bring whiffs of “air as sharp as lemon juice” and cheese like “squadrons of reserve moons” within biting distance. Such niceties, meandering as they may be, are served with Fowles’s brand of “tonic wit”. This provides the delectable edge to an otherwise familiar story of the mad and the maddened.

Director Karel Reisz’s adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) is based on Harold Pinter’s screenplay, which Fowles termed as “not a ‘version’ of my novel; but (as) the blueprint…of a brilliant metaphor for it.” Reisz mentions a “particular sort of Pirandello-ish device: when you have any sequence which leads into the next, you have all the residue of feelings that remain and you bring these with you into the new sequence. In our film, the feelings from the Victorian story carry over into the modern, the modern into the Victorian.”

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).

In other words, while engaging with the story of Sarah and Charles, the audience is inveigled to believe that a similar adulterous affair exists between the actors who play them. This contention, though attractive, ends up being lightweight.

Nominations and awards notwithstanding, lead actress Meryl Streep has said that she was not happy with the film: “…the structure of it was sort of artificial because I was the actress playing the French Lieutenant’s Woman. At the same time I was an American actress playing a British woman.” Even so, Streep is impressive.

A familiar scene for modern Streep characters is one of speaking on the telephone with a clandestine lover while a husband or boyfriend lurks in earshot. There are those intakes of breath, those half smiles of discomfort and guilt and the micro-second glazed look before she makes up her mind how to cope with an inevitable confrontation. The last telephone scene between Molly and Frank (Robert De Niro) in Ulu Grosberg’s Falling In Love (1984) is a throwback to Streep as Anna speaking to Mike (Jeremy Irons) in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).

Mike invites Anna and her boyfriend David to a lunch party with other members of the cast. In his expansive country house, Anna comes face to face with Mike’s wife Sonia (played by the reliable Penelope Wilton). They share a nuanced moment of knowing and smiling awkwardness. In their restraint they are equally matched, but obviously Streep gets the bigger close-ups.

In the period scenes of Reisz’s film, Streep is outstanding. She has the support of Patience Collier, who perfectly plays the formidable harridan Mrs Poulteney. Dr Grogan, who diagnoses Charles’s malady as well as Sarah’s, is memorably played by Leo Mckern, and Charles’s fiancée, the spoilt Ernestina, is a snug-as-a-glove fit for the dainty but not fragile Lynsey Baxter.

The costumes are immaculate as is the skillful make up. Streep makes a chic Anna and a wan pre-Raphaelite like Sarah. Irons as Mike is wavy haired and casual with none of the woolly sideburns and stiffness that make him Charles. Sets and natural locations merge naturally. The interiors are intricate and the exteriors well appointed. When we follow Sarah through a glen, we are in Constable country, serene and secretive. Reisz’s film is elegant and bewitching as long as it stays in 1860.

The gold standard for the depiction of a film within a film is Francois Truffaut’s unvarnished Day for Night (1973). Had she been part of it, Streep might have felt differently.

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.