The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

R | 124 mins | Drama, Romance | 18 September 1981

Director:

Karel Reisz

Writer:

Harold Pinter

Producer:

Leon Clore

Cinematographer:

Freddie Francis

Editor:

John Bloom

Production Designer:

Assheton Gorton

Production Company:

United Artists
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HISTORY

       The 6 Dec 1971 DV reported that Lester Goldsmith’s company, Sourdough Ltd., had purchased screen rights to John Fowles’ 1969 novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman for an undisclosed sum. On 27 Dec 1971, DV and HR announced that Franklin J. Schaffner would direct the film, budgeted between $3.5-4 million. Principal photography was planned to begin in spring 1973. The 4 Feb 1972 HR noted that production was pushed to summer of 1973, and no financing or distribution had been arranged. The 4 Apr 1972 HR stated that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) signed a production agreement with director Schaffner and producer Goldsmith, and James Goldman would write the screenplay. The 30 Apr 1975 DV noted that Schaffner and Goldman realized they could not develop a “viable filmization” of the novel. On 17 Jan 1973, Var announced that MGM cancelled their plans to film The French Lieutenant’s Woman due to script delays and “excessive preliminary costs,” which would significantly exceed the planned $3 million budget. Reportedly, Goldsmith then approached David L. Wolper to produce the film for National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television. However, Fred Zinnemann purchased rights to the book in early 1975, and signed a deal with Paramount Pictures. As reported in the 30 Apr 1975 HR, Zinnemann and David V. Picker planned to co-produce, with Zinnemann also directing. The 7 Jul 1975 DV noted that Dennis Potter was writing the screenplay. The 4 Aug 1975 Publishers Weekly reported that Zinnemann was satisfied with Potter’s script ... More Less

       The 6 Dec 1971 DV reported that Lester Goldsmith’s company, Sourdough Ltd., had purchased screen rights to John Fowles’ 1969 novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman for an undisclosed sum. On 27 Dec 1971, DV and HR announced that Franklin J. Schaffner would direct the film, budgeted between $3.5-4 million. Principal photography was planned to begin in spring 1973. The 4 Feb 1972 HR noted that production was pushed to summer of 1973, and no financing or distribution had been arranged. The 4 Apr 1972 HR stated that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) signed a production agreement with director Schaffner and producer Goldsmith, and James Goldman would write the screenplay. The 30 Apr 1975 DV noted that Schaffner and Goldman realized they could not develop a “viable filmization” of the novel. On 17 Jan 1973, Var announced that MGM cancelled their plans to film The French Lieutenant’s Woman due to script delays and “excessive preliminary costs,” which would significantly exceed the planned $3 million budget. Reportedly, Goldsmith then approached David L. Wolper to produce the film for National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television. However, Fred Zinnemann purchased rights to the book in early 1975, and signed a deal with Paramount Pictures. As reported in the 30 Apr 1975 HR, Zinnemann and David V. Picker planned to co-produce, with Zinnemann also directing. The 7 Jul 1975 DV noted that Dennis Potter was writing the screenplay. The 4 Aug 1975 Publishers Weekly reported that Zinnemann was satisfied with Potter’s script and the project appeared to be on its way to production. The article also noted that Twentieth Century-Fox once held the screen rights to the novel, but was unable to find an acceptable screenplay. According to articles in the 3 Dec 1977 LAT and the 7 Nov 1978 DV, actress Charlotte Rampling was set to star in Zinnemann’s production, but the film was not made. In late 1977, producer Saul Zaentz of Fantasy Films became interested in the project and came to an agreement with Fowles and his publisher. However, Zaentz’s production plans were never realized. A Warner Bros. press release in AMPAS library files and an item in the 7 Nov 1978 DV announced that Warner Bros. acquired the screen rights, contracted Harold Pinter to write the screenplay, and signed Karel Reisz to direct and produce, with principal photography planned for 1979. Items in the 1 Jan 1979 LAT and the 13 Dec 1979 LAHExam noted that actress Julie Christie had once been considered for the film, and Vanessa Redgrave was a strong candidate, but Meryl Streep was reportedly set to star. The 13 Feb 1980 Var reported that the Warner Bros. project also went into turnaround. United Artists picked up the screen rights and principal photography was planned for May 1980, with Karel Reisz directing and Meryl Streep starring. The 18 Sep 1981 NYT review noted that Harold Pinter solved the problem of adapting Fowles’ novel to the screen by adding a parallel contemporary story that served as a way to replicate Fowles’ twentieth century perspective of his Victorian era drama.
       On 27 May 1980, DV announced the start of principal photography in Cornwall, England. Production notes in AMPAS library files reported that during the twenty-two week schedule, locations also included London’s Twickenham Studios and the historic Garrick Club in London. The steamer that carries the character “Charles Smithson” across Lake Windermere is “the earliest steam boat extant and still working in the world.” In Lyme Regis, Cornwall, on the west coast of England, a steeply sloped wooded area, known as the “Undercliff,” required the production to build two miles of footpaths to provide access to the rugged terrain, and a 100 foot staircase was constructed. In 1980, England reportedly had the wettest summer in 113 years, but filming was able to continue because the production utilized a photographic system known as “Lightflex,” in which an illuminated glass panel is placed over the camera lens to control the exposure. Reisz and director of photography, Freddie Francis, chose the Lightflex system to accord the film a low key, “twilight Victorian mood.” The system slightly colored the film and tints could be produced to enhance the drama.
       Articles in the 4 Sep 1981 DV and the 22 Sep 1981 HR reported that United Artists chose a “selective releasing pattern” for the film. The French Lieutenant’s Woman opened 18 Sep 1981 at the Little Carnegie theater in New York City, the Century Plaza theater in Los Angeles, CA, and the Cumberland theater in Toronto, Canada. The film grossed $124,099 in the first three days at those theaters. Another New York City theater was added the following week. The 2 Oct 1981 HR announced that the film’s ten-day box-office gross was $353,392. The film opened in forty more theaters on 2 Oct 1981, and was released at an additional 144 theaters on 16 Oct 1981. A United Artists’ press release in AMPAS library files reported the film grossed $1,025,813 in its first seventeen days of limited release. According to an article in the 9-15 Dec 1981 Village Voice, the film was a “borderline” success with an estimated box office gross of $12 - $15 million.
       The French Lieutenant’s Woman was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Actress (Meryl Streep); Screenplay based on material from another medium; Art Direction; Costume Design; and Film Editing. The film also received eleven nominations from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), with Meryl Streep winning the BAFTA award for Best Actress. Additional BAFTA awards went to Carl Davis for Original Film Music, and to Don Sharpe, Ivan Sharrod and Bill Rowe for Film Sound. Streep also won an award for her performance from the Los Angeles Society of Film Critics. Streep and screenwriter Pinter were nominated for Italy’s highest film honor, the David di Donatello award, with Pinter winning the award for “Best Foreign Screenplay.”
      End credits include the following statement: “Made at Twickenham Studios, London, and on location in England.”
More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
6 Dec 1971.
---
Daily Variety
27 Dec 1971.
---
Daily Variety
30 Apr 1975
pp. 1, 4.
Daily Variety
7 Jul 1975.
pp. 1, 6.
Daily Variety
7 Nov 1978.
---
Daily Variety
27 May 1980.
---
Daily Variety
4 Sep 1981.
pp. 1, 19.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Dec 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Feb 1972.
pp. 1, 23.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Apr 1972.
---
Hollywood Reporter
30 Apr 1975.
---
Hollywood Reporter
22 Sep 1981.
pp. 1, 4.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Oct 1981.
---
LAHExam
13 Dec 1979.
---
Los Angeles Times
3 Dec 1977.
---
Los Angeles Times
1 Jan 1979.
---
Los Angeles Times
13 Sep 1981
p. 27.
New York Times
18 Sep 1981
p. 4.
Publishers Weekly
4 Aug 1975.
---
Variety
17 Jan 1973.
---
Variety
13 Feb 1980.
---
Variety
9 Sep 1981
p. 18.
Village Voice
9-15 Dec 1981.
p. 78.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Karel Reisz Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Prod mgr
Asst dir
2d asst dir
3d asst dir
3d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Prod
Assoc prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Stills photog
Focus puller
Clapper loader
Gaffer
Grip
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
Art dir
Art dir
FILM EDITORS
Asst ed
Asst ed
2d asst ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
Prop buyer
Prop buyer
Const mgr
COSTUMES
Cost des
Asst to cost des
Ward supv
Ward asst
Ward asst
Period cost supplied by
MUSIC
SOUND
Sd ed
Sd re-rec
Boom op
Sd asst
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Spec eff
Title des
Title opt
MAKEUP
Makeup
Hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting dir
Loc mgr
Loc mgr
Loc mgr
Cont
Prod accountant
Prod asst
Sarah's drawings by
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col processing by
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles (Boston, 1969).
AUTHOR
MUSIC
Adagio from Mozart's Sonata in D, K 576 played by John Lill.
DETAILS
Release Date:
18 September 1981
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 18 September 1981
Production Date:
began 27 May 1980 in Cornwall, England
Copyright Claimant:
Juniper Films
Copyright Date:
12 January 1982
Copyright Number:
PA126933
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Lenses
Lenses and Panaflex camera by Panavision®
Lenses
Photographed with the Lightflex System
Prints
Print by Technicolor®
Duration(in mins):
124
MPAA Rating:
R
Countries:
United Kingdom, United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Parallel stories of a Victorian era tale and actors filming it as a movie are interwoven, starting with the mysterious Victorian woman, Sarah Woodruff, walking to the edge of a sea wall in Lyme, England. Elsewhere in the village, Charles Smithson, a London-based scientist studying flint beds in the region, proposes to Ernestina Freeman, and she accepts. In the modern story, Mike, the actor portraying Charles, and Anna, the actress portraying Sarah, are asleep in Anna’s hotel room. When Mike answers the call that Anna is late for makeup, they realize the crew will know they are sleeping together. In the film, Sarah sketches while an undertaker removes a coffin from her former employer’s home, and the vicar suggests that Mrs. Poulteney might hire her. Charles visits Mr. Freeman, who is aware that Charles will receive a large inheritance, and agrees to let Charles marry Ernestina. Later, Charles and Ernestina notice Sarah at the end of the sea wall. Charles asks about her and Ernestina reveals that fishermen call her “the French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Ernestina says Sarah is crazy and will not listen, but Charles insists it is not safe to be on the wall in this stormy weather. As Charles approaches, Sarah looks at him and he is captivated by her gaze. Later, Ernestina shares the gossip that Sarah was compromised by a man, who abandoned her, and she awaits his return. Mrs. Poulteney interviews Sarah for the position of companion, declaring it requires irreproachable moral character. She heard Sarah was repentant, but insists staring out to sea is sinful ... +


Parallel stories of a Victorian era tale and actors filming it as a movie are interwoven, starting with the mysterious Victorian woman, Sarah Woodruff, walking to the edge of a sea wall in Lyme, England. Elsewhere in the village, Charles Smithson, a London-based scientist studying flint beds in the region, proposes to Ernestina Freeman, and she accepts. In the modern story, Mike, the actor portraying Charles, and Anna, the actress portraying Sarah, are asleep in Anna’s hotel room. When Mike answers the call that Anna is late for makeup, they realize the crew will know they are sleeping together. In the film, Sarah sketches while an undertaker removes a coffin from her former employer’s home, and the vicar suggests that Mrs. Poulteney might hire her. Charles visits Mr. Freeman, who is aware that Charles will receive a large inheritance, and agrees to let Charles marry Ernestina. Later, Charles and Ernestina notice Sarah at the end of the sea wall. Charles asks about her and Ernestina reveals that fishermen call her “the French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Ernestina says Sarah is crazy and will not listen, but Charles insists it is not safe to be on the wall in this stormy weather. As Charles approaches, Sarah looks at him and he is captivated by her gaze. Later, Ernestina shares the gossip that Sarah was compromised by a man, who abandoned her, and she awaits his return. Mrs. Poulteney interviews Sarah for the position of companion, declaring it requires irreproachable moral character. She heard Sarah was repentant, but insists staring out to sea is sinful and will not be tolerated. In the modern world, Anna reads about prostitution in 1857 and shares with Mike that she better understands her character’s concern about moving to London. In the Victorian era, hundreds of prostitutes were “nice girls,” like governesses, who lost their jobs and had no other choice. In the film, Charles sees Sarah sitting beneath a cliffside tree, looking at the ocean. At a nearby farmhouse, he asks about Sarah, and the farmer calls her the “French Lieutenant’s Whore.” Charles meets Sarah on the path, but she insists on being left alone, and asks him not to tell anyone she was on the cliffs. As Mike and Anna rehearse a scene in which her character falls and he catches her, reality merges into the fictional story as Sarah claims anyone who cares for his reputation cannot be seen with her. Charles assumes she stays in the area awaiting the French lieutenant, but she admits he is married and will never return. When Sarah returns home, she is chastised by Mrs. Poulteney for being seen looking at the ocean. Meanwhile, Charles’s servant, Sam, delivers a bouquet of flowers to Ernestina’s home, and flirts with Mary, the maid. Later, Sarah accompanies Mrs. Poulteney to tea with Ernestina’s aunt, Ernestina, and Charles. Mrs. Poulteney reveals that her housekeeper saw Mary speaking to Sam on several occasions. Charles wonders what crime they committed by talking, but Ernestina agrees with Mrs. Poulteney that it is unacceptable behavior. During the exchange, Sarah serves tea, and slips a note to Charles. He meets her that night, but is shocked that she snuck him a note in front of his fiancée. Sarah asks for his assistance, but Charles insists it is improper and wonders why she does not move to London. If she moved to London, she replies, she would become what they call her in Lyme. She begs Charles to meet her on the cliff the following day so she can reveal what happened eighteen months before. Charles visits Dr. Grogan, who met with Sarah ten months ago and diagnoses that she has a form of melancholia, and does not want to be cured. When Charles meets Sarah on the cliff, he learns that she was a governess at a home where a wounded French lieutenant recuperated after a shipwreck. She was flattered when he romanced her and, upon his recovery, the lieutenant asked her to join him in Weymouth. She declined the invitation, but later changed her mind. She knew immediately the lieutenant was false, but stayed anyway and gave herself willingly to him. Knowing she would never marry an equal, Sarah embraced her shame instead, insisting it gave her a kind of freedom. Noticing Sam and Mary pass nearby, Charles insists they must never meet alone again. While walking home, Sarah spots Mrs. Poulteney’s housekeeper at a farm stand and walks past without acknowledging her. Later, Sarah slides a letter under Charles’s door, asking to meet at an abandoned barn on the cliff. Charles seeks Dr. Grogan’s advice and learns that Sarah was fired. Dr. Grogan claims Sarah is smart, but emotional, and has fallen in love with being a victim. Dr. Grogan feels that she deliberately let herself be seen to compromise Charles, and states that many prostitutes behave that way. Charles declares Sarah is not a prostitute, and the doctor realizes Charles is falling in love with her. Charles insists that nothing improper has transpired and agrees to pay for Sarah’s treatment in a private asylum. The next day, Charles remembers his first vision of Sarah on the sea wall. He rushes to the abandoned barn, promises to help her, and they kiss. However, Sam and Mary pass nearby and see them. Charles pulls Sam aside, and says he is helping Sarah, but it is confidential. Sam promises he and Mary will remain silent. Charles gives Sarah money to travel to Exeter, promising that his lawyer will supply additional funds. On the film set, Anna joins Mike for lunch and reveals she is done filming in Lyme and is leaving for London. Upset, Mike asks if her boyfriend, David, has arrived yet, and elicits a promise that she will meet him in London. Charles visits Ernestina’s home to inform his fiancée that he must return to London for three days to handle marriage legalities. He confers with his London attorney, instructs him to send fifty pounds to Sarah and declares he wants to hear nothing further about her. Later, Charles joins two friends for dinner, and becomes intoxicated. The next day, a messenger arrives with a letter from Sarah, which Sam reads before giving it to Charles. Sam asks Charles for advice about opening a shop, claiming he needs money to get started and would like Charles’s help. Charles promises to consider it, then orders him to pack for their return to Lyme. At the train station in Exeter, Charles insists they wait until the following day to ride to Lyme, and does not realize it when Sam follows him to Sarah’s hotel. Charles learns that Sarah hurt her ankle in a fall, and wants to get a doctor, but she refuses. She cries, claiming she thought she would never see him again. They kiss and he carries her to the bedroom. As they make love, Charles is surprised to discover that Sarah is a virgin. He wonders why she lied and she admits that she followed the French lieutenant to Weymouth, but saw him with a prostitute, and left. She does not know why she told Charles a false story. They admit their mutual love, and Charles leaves to break his engagement with Ernestina, who is enraged and threatens that her father will ruin Charles’s reputation. When Charles informs Sam of the broken engagement and insists they travel abroad, Sam quits. Charles returns to the inn, but discovers Sarah is gone. In the present, Mike asks his wife about hosting a luncheon for the cast and she agrees. He telephones to invite Anna and David, also telling Anna that he loves her. Charles searches London for Sarah. The Freemans’ legal proceedings force Charles to sign a document admitting his dishonorable behavior with Sarah caused him to break his contract to marry Ernestina, who can use the document however she chooses, including publication. At the cast luncheon, Mike sneaks a kiss from Anna and insists they have to decide what to do about their romance while filming their final scene at Windermere. Three years later Charles learns that Sarah has been found working as a governess under the name “Mrs. Roughwood.” He finds Sarah on an estate, where she also pursues her artwork. She claims there was madness within her that needed to be destroyed, and it took her this long to find her own life and freedom. Charles is furious, but Sarah insists that if he still loves her, he will forgive her. They kiss, and then canoe together. At the film’s wrap party, Anna says goodbye to friends and heads upstairs. Mike also says goodbye to co-workers and heads upstairs, but when he reaches Anna’s dressing table, she is gone. Hearing a car start, he rushes to the window and calls to “Sarah” as Anna drives away. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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