The year is 1867. The setting, Lyme Regis, a resort town on England's southern coast. Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons) is a wealthy young gentleman who is an amateur paleontologist and an enthusiast of Darwin. His fiancée, Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter), is the pretty but shallow daughter of a merchant. Their relationship is undermined by Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep), a moody governess whom the townsfolk think is a whore because of her affair with a French naval officer who was once shipwrecked in Lyme Regis.
There is something mysterious and compelling about this attractive outcast. Sarah's magnetism draws Charles to her side for several meetings in a wild cliff meadow. But the more he learns about her, the less he knows.
A local doctor (Leo McKern) suggests Sarah behaves irrationally to attract sympathy and attention. After losing her job, she turns to Charles for assistance and they are seen embracing by Sam (Milton McRase), Charles' manservant. Before long, the smitten gentleman has thrown away his impending marriage and his prospects in society by bedding Sarah. Afterwards, her rejection of him signals a newfound morality of self-fulfillment on Sarah's part. Years later, the crestfallen suitor finds Sarah again. She is an emancipated figure in the household of Dante Gabriel Rosetti.
John Fowles' 1969 novel was proclaimed a multileveled work of art. It was at once a striking portrait of Victorian England and its mores, a gripping psychological study of the war between the sexes, and a heady philosophical saga about freedom as a route to self-fulfillment. Critics also called the novel a tale of two worlds, referring to its mingling of past and present and its alternate endings. Readers were challenged to put themselves into the story.
The same holds true for this interesting screen interpretation of The French Lieutenant's Woman directed by Karel Reisz (The Dog Soldiers) and written by Harold Pinter. When Anna (Meryl Streep) and Mike (Jeremy Irons), the stars playing the two lead characters in the movie, fall in love during the shooting of the film, we are given an opportunity to compare and contrast the Victorian era and the contemporary scene. As we leave the theatre, the question asking process begins: Are we happier, wiser, more liberated, more loving, more honest, than the Victorian characters in the story? The provocative nature of The French Lieutenant's Woman demands dialogue afterwards.