The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

D: Clint Eastwood
S: Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood

Superb, adult romantic drama from Clint Eastwood, who, with the aid of Oscar-winning screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) and leading lady Meryl Streep, has transformed the popular novel by Robert James Waller into a thought-provoking exploration of issues in fidelity and relationships. Vaguely dissatisfied housewife Streep finds herself idly wondering if her life is really as complete as it seems. When her family are away for a few days, she encounters wandering National Geographic photographer Eastwood. A tentative, delicate friendship springs up between them, gradually becoming a more intense and physical relationship as the days go by. Yet when it becomes a question of choosing a path which could alter her life, Streep finds herself uncertain. The story is related via letters and diaries found by her children decades later and after her death, which causes them to question the nature of their own concepts of the world and their families. Eastwood and LaGravenese invite us to do likewise, a sincere appeal to both the emotions and the intellect notably lacking in manipulation.

If understatement was a crutch for Eastwood as an actor in the 1960s and 70s, it has now become an identifiable stylistic trait with real character. As actor and director, he continues to demonstrate an ability to communicate with an audience on an adult level which makes him among the foremost American directors of the late twentieth century. The Bridges of Madison County is probably best described as 'understated'. Though it follows the mechanics of the genre and will probably still appeal to the box-of-hankies brigade, on closer inspection (which is invited) it reveals its true depths. As it goes on the film becomes increasingly layered in its presentation of its two central characters. Their relationship does not fall into usual categories, and Eastwood manages to ensure that the questions about 1960s alternative culture are delicately interwoven with this unconventional yet conventional situation. A process of reversal seems to occur where the nominally free spirited male finds himself feeling a rooted connection with the woman, who seems (and ultimately proves to be) primarily domestic and family oriented. Yet it is not merely a story of a casual fling, nor does it descend into hysteria or melodrama. Confrontations are as likely to end in dumbfounded expressions betraying deep hurt, and misunderstandings do not result in points scoring and an opportunity for speechifying. Instead LaGravenese's selective dialogue lets the ebb and flow of conversation capture the nuances of a complicated emotional and psychological connection between human beings, and this is matched visually by Eastwood's staging of the individual scenes. The film does not condescend to its audience or take the easier route via cliché, and Eastwood is to be commended for his decision to challenge rather than pander to the mass market.

All of the usual Eastwood craftsmanship is on display. Beautiful cinematography by Jack N. Green, subtle editing by Joel Cox, an understated score by Lennie Niehaus (with a sneaky insert of a blues band which features Eastwood's son, Kyle), plus nicely low-key but important and effective production design and costumes all contribute to the level of polish we now expect from this director. On top of this is his consuumate skill in allowing scenes to develop at their natural rhythm and in carefully but unobtrusively ensuring the audience remain constantly aware of the underlying thematic development. Both leads are excellent. Streep portrays the subtle and contradictory emotions of her character with her usual finesse. Eastwood is winningly vulnerable yet strong as her would-be lover, and gets to play some of the most genuinely romantic scenes of his career. The two play well together, and the film has a great number of intimate dramatic scenes in which they get to stretch themselves as performers.

Though it has strong echoes of Brief Encounter and, as noted, does subscribe to many generic clichés in terms of its basic plot, this is a subtle and worthwhile adult romance which is highly recommended even to non-genre fans. Admirers of Eastwood will be even more impressed than the casual viewer, and some people may find themselves pleasantly surprised (though if they'd been watching films like Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart they probably wouldn't be). Worthwhile.

Note: The region 2 DVD features some production notes but no other extras.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.