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The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A surprisingly touching account of finding true love in middle-age, only for it to be torn away by cruel fate, The Bridges of Madison County strikes a nerve. In the summer of 1965, Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) cares for her family with all her heart, as she has done for years. It's still a relief, however, to know that her husband Richard (Jim Haynie) is taking the kids off to the Illinois State Fair. Both Michael (Victor Slezak) and Caroline (Annie Corley) have reached that difficult age, so four days all to herself are a godsend. Waving goodbye, from the porch, to what is essentially her life, Francesca settles down with her thoughts and a cool glass of iced tea.

Francesca's reverie is rudely interrupted by the approach of a pick-up truck, kicking up gravel. From the dusty, blue vehicle steps Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood). A photographer for National Geographic, he's arrived in Iowa to flesh out an article on the local covered bridges with some arresting photos. The problem is that without signposts, Robert's having some trouble locating the Rosamunde Bridge. Since her attempt at providing verbal direction is hopelessly confusing, Francesca offers to show Robert exactly where he should be going. Thus begins their conversation, with Robert quickly establishing that Francesca was born in Italy - curiously enough in a tiny town that he happens to have visited. While Robert decides on his angles, their lightly flirtatious chatter continues; obviously they're soul mates of a sort.

In a charmingly hesitant fashion, Francesca invites Robert back to the farmhouse. Since they're both going to be alone that evening, why don't they have dinner together and share their thoughts? In stark contrast to the nearly silent meals that Francesca ordinarily presides over, the simple fact that they're strangers allows them to be as voluble and open as they like. As the pair reveal their dreams and disappointments, a connection is made. Unfortunately, in a small-town nothing remains private and Francesca is far too loyal to Richard to ever betray him. It's a delicate situation, pregnant with possibility and weighed down by the inevitability of time.

Based upon Robert James Waller's best-selling novel, The Bridges of Madison County represents a succession of excellent choices. The first of these was the decision made by Eastwood to option the book, recognising the light touch that he could bring to the story. The second was to allow Richard LaGravenese a free hand in radically restructuring the tale, exorcising much purple prose and bringing Francesca to prominence. The third wise choice was the casting of Streep. Since Eastwood seems well aware of his limitations as an actor (even as he regularly surprises those who typecast him), the importance of employing a first-rate actress as Francesca must have seemed obvious; as it turns out, Streep is a superb choice. The final factor is concerned with locating The Bridges of Madison County in the past. This style of romantic fiction really only works when viewed through rose-tinted glasses, which is precisely what Jack Green's cinematography provides. So, while a missed step at any of these points could have doomed the film, we can be grateful that Eastwood's path remained true.

As the axis of The Bridges of Madison County Francesca, and the credibility of her emotional turmoil, is of critical importance. It is her story that is shocking Michael and Caroline, it is her life that is forever altered by a chance encounter and it is her foresight that forever consigns their hidden love to a locket. In simple terms, Streep is astoundingly convincing. Her use of mannerism, accent, look and reaction is unparalleled. At the beginning Francesca is vaguely unhappy with her life, since it doesn't quite match her dreams, yet absolutely resolved to endure. Then with the flickering of coincidence, Streep blooms, seeming ten years younger and a whole different person. This is the power of her performance. In contrast, Eastwood does his very best to reveal the gentle heart that beats below his weathered exterior and, to be honest, he puts on a fine show. Sure, he doesn't buzz with Streep's erotic charge but the pain of separation is there for all to see.

In placing The Bridges of Madison County onto the screen, Eastwood's direction is slow but sure, competent without being flashy. Plenty of time is allocated to long moments of silence and contemplation, many of which can be interpreted to contain great meaning (consider Francesca and Robert's first physical connection). Curiously, these quiet times have a totally different quality to the sterile repression that permeates the Johnson family. Eastwood's approach works well in this case, suggesting a valid comparison with Brief Encounter (which hits a slightly more intense note of yearning). These are both commonly supposed to be of interest only to women, yet that is not the case. As long as you surrender to the emotion, both films bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye - the tragedy of unobtainable love is familiar to all.

Ultimately The Bridges of Madison County allows you to reflect on your own life, without becoming sickeningly sentimental. It's a slate with just one message; it's better to go through the searing pain of this than to never love at all. A wonderful, if not quite perfect, film.

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