The Bridges of Madison County
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Annie Corley, Victor Slezak, Jim Haynie. (1995)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 2, 1995
With Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood was grandly given credit for single-handedly reviving the moribund genre of the film Western. Such hyperbole may also come his way for The Bridges of Madison County, which can be seen as breathing fresh life into the stagnant genre of women's film melodrama. But probably not, because Bridges is, after all, a woman's story, and what's our Clint doing mucking around in girl stuff? Clearly, Bridges is a movie Eastwood very much wanted to make: Not only does he co-star, he also directs and co-produces. Yet when word crept out that Eastwood was preparing Robert James Waller's runaway bestseller The Bridges of Madison County for the screen, reactions were generally incredulous and bemused. The common ground between the screen icon and the romance novel were far from obvious. But Eastwood has always been one to flex his screen persona, so it's not that unusual that he chose to play the role of the sensitive photographer and lover, Robert Kincaid. His real stroke of genius, though, was casting Meryl Streep as Francesca Johnson, the story's Italian-born Iowa housewife. Through her body language, Streep conveys just as much through what she doesn't say as through what she does. Through her gestures, her facial expressions, the way she holds her body, and her stolen glances, we learn the depths of the currents flowing through her still waters. She is a lonely woman, though she is surrounded by family; she is someone whose dreams of coming to America have not been fulfilled by the dull reality of her life in Winterset, Iowa; she has a busy life stuffed with details but has nothing that truly satisfies or excites her anymore. She's certainly no lachrymose creature bemoaning her fate, but one senses that her capacities for feeling have deadened over time. She's ready for that handsome stranger to come to her door seeking directions. In some ways, Bridges reminds me of The Rose Tattoo, the Tennessee Williams-based film starring Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster. In it, Magnani plays a fiery widow with a thick Italian accent who falls for the beefy truck driver who comes to her door. The set-up is not too unlike Italian-accented Francesca's four-day solitary holiday while her family is at the state fair, only her gentleman visitor is a lanky photographer from National Geographic. Actually, between Bridges and Don Juan DeMarco, 1995 has so far proved to be a good (if you really want to call a sum total of two “good”) year for the depiction of romance amongst the over-40 set. Bridges is punctuated by scenes of Francesca's grown children discovering the existence of her long-ago affair after their mother has died. At times, watching them deal with this new information is interesting, since it makes them question everything they thought was true about their lives. The entire movie enacts their mother's romance as they pore through her diaries. Occasionally, the movie cuts back to the present, and we see the kids wallowing in their own assimilation problems and, by the end, using their discovery to help resolve marital troubles in their own lives. It's too much and the resolutions ring phony. Another problem with this otherwise beautiful script by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Ref, A Little Princess) is that it sometimes renders things way too literally, when the evocative images would have sufficed perfectly. (The best - or worst - example of this is the scene in the bathtub with the showerhead dripping from above. The images in that scene tell us everything we need to know, but then Francesca's voiceover tells us about these erotic feelings she's having. Too much information… but maybe that's what is necessary to be successful in the Winterset, Iowa malls.) Bridges is another example of Eastwood's remarkable economy of style as both a director and an actor. It is neither his best work nor his worst, though it is a fascinating exploration.