Reviewing any film from the vantage of a thirteen year hiatus is rare for me. I readily enjoy revisiting favorites - sometimes twice in a single year - on home video. But it's been exactly fourteen years since I last watched Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995). At first, the film's enduring quiet, its understated and overreaching arch of emotional poignancy was not immediately apparent to me, perhaps because the acting from Annie Corley and Victor Slezak was just so bad. However, as the story progressed, even their performances improved for me - or perhaps, I simply found a level of tolerance towards them; succumbing to Richard LaGravenese's screenplay, cleverly designed to jerk tears from a stone. As soon as the story regressed into flashback, my admiration for The Bridges of Madison County was secured; a gentle magic woven into these tapestries of life, magnificently realized by Meryl Streep and Eastwood; veterans in their craft, cleverly performing this awkward dance of mid-life romance: him – a weather-beaten sign post discovering the embers of a winter passion; her – the sturdy, yet voluptuous sport of many passions never realized until now in her nevertheless sincere and longstanding marriage.
At the time of the movie’s premiere I remember reading harsh criticisms about Eastwood, seemingly disguised as a hundred year old stump of petrified wood. Nevertheless, the actor is more than capable of seducing Streep’s Italian farm frau, who has all but suppressed her own sexual urges to remain a faithful and devoted wife and mother. Both characterizations are yearning to unleash themselves from a lifetime of loneliness, with an almost fierce yearning to be the people they truly are beneath their courtly exteriors.
Propriety and honor prevent such outbursts, the reticent affair that unexpectedly blossoms with sustained passion becoming far more erotic and satisfying as a result. In many ways, The Bridges of Madison County bucks the movie trend for erotic romance, its homespun Iowan Americana backdrop fitted to an unhurried pace; Eastwood’s direction taking its time to respect life’s finer details, alchemized through discreet observation; reaching out to these two wounded souls who discover the tender flame of love together from its smoldering embers, rather than its raging heat.
Fair enough, Eastwood and Streep seem like an odd team on the surface; his prematurely weather-beaten façade and gravelly voice; that perennially built-in and forever lingering ‘Dirty Harry/Man With No Name’ persona overriding every performance and suggesting - erroneously, I might add - that there’s no more to either the man or the performer: incongruously pitted against Streep’s serene chameleon of accents and mannerisms; an actress of so many extraordinary gifts it is quite simply impossible to list them all with any degree of competent homage in any single review and still find time – and the space – to critique the movie itself. But Eastwood, who of course also directs this picture with a grace and magnitude, finds ways around – or rather, into the heart of his character; to make us believe in his Robert Kincaid as a man who would travel hundreds of miles simply to photograph the famed covered bridges of Madison County for National Geographic magazine.
It’s always been grossly unfair to think of Eastwood only as the spaghetti western successor to John Wayne’s mantle of the American west; despite the fact his indelible claim to fame will likely always remain just that. And certainly, Eastwood deserves credit for these films. But in the interim, he has proven to be more than the éminence grise of that bygone era; risen, matured and moved on as one of the indisputable artists of this modern age; his impeccable tastes both in front of and behind the camera a constant – if ever-evolving – revelation. Eastwood is an enduring treasure to this world of film-making, his reputation moved well beyond the saddle and chaps. Still, there’s a little cowboy left in Eastwood’s alter ego in The Bridges of Madison County; the strong/silent type who woos this woman of cautious restraint, not with ego, but an even more reticent passion not immediately apparent at a glance.
The Bridges of Madison County is basically a poetic dance between two lonely people who discover something unlikely and very special in their abject isolation from the rest of the world. Both Streep’s Francesca Johnson and Eastwood’s Robert Kincaid have endured a lifelong emptiness of being all alone in a crowded room. One may choose to regard the story as a subtler feminist critique of a woman’s loss of self once she commits to the time-honored profession of housewife and mother. Deprived of her husband and children for the weekend, Francesca begins to rekindle her own passions as a woman – her self-discovery hinged on this stranger in her midst who reawakens unanticipated sexual desires from within.
But the look of love has changed. Neither Fran nor Bob are Spring chickens any more. It is one of life’s ironies, I suppose that when we think of romance – and sex in particular – the immediate image that comes to mind is of firm bodies generating naked sparks between the sheets. Perhaps, at the crux of the human condition there remains this queer necessity to still regard ourselves as young, vibrant and attractive – even when the image staring back at us betrays with the obvious passage of time. But the movies allow for our vicarious renewal of such daydreams; populated, as they readily are, by a never-ending parade of attractive youth selling their wares – and bodies – to the art of our collected fantasy.
In its departure from this norm; readily expounded as the only kind of love worth celebrating – The Bridges of Madison County achieves an uncharacteristic seriousness and poignancy. It taps into the tattered tapestry after youth has surrendered to ripening middle-age; finding tenderness and deeper meaning in love this second time around. Yet, it does not cheat the audience by suggesting tawdriness or betrayal. Rediscovering passion – unlocking Pandora’s Box, as it were - does not destroy either character. On the contrary, it enriches both their lives – if only for this briefest of encounters – the memory along carried onward and into the twilight and passing into the next life.
The affair is, of course, is a shocking revelation to Francesca’s children, Carolyn (Annie Corley) and Michael (Victor Slezak). Children in general come to regard their parents – particularly in old age – as something of their property – belonging to them exclusively and having virtually no lives apart from the familial unit, prior to their arrival on the scene; selfishly owing everything to them by virtue alone of being their offspring. LaGravenese’s screenplay taps into this complex understanding with remarkable clarity; yet even more astutely without casting criticism. Learning of Francesca’s affair creates an open wound – but only superficially; the children forced to come to their own terms about what it meant for their mother to have loved two men in her life. That she chose to remain ever-devoted to her family instead is not merely admirable – but a sacrifice Francesca would prefer to rectify in death by having her ashes scattered over the covered bridge where she and Robert first became acquainted.
The novel, The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller was originally written in just eleven days – an intended personalized Christmas gift for a few friends. Waller, an Indiana University professor, already published in the realm of non-fiction had no idea what was in store for him. So impressed by its potency, one of Waller’s friends gave the manuscript to a New York literary agent who was immediately bowled over by its emotional simplicity. The project’s gestation period from page to screen was not particularly lengthy or arduous – merely muddled by the old adage of ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’. Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment initially purchased the screen rights to The Bridges of Madison County for $25,000 while it was still in galleys. Spielberg had planned to direct the project himself as a follow-up to Schindler’s List (1993). However, when editing duties on that movie proved more lengthy and complex, Spielberg willingly passed the baton to his first choice, Sidney Pollack, who brought along screenwriter, Kurt Luedtke to create a first draft screenplay. For reasons undisclosed, Luedtke then stepped aside; co-producer, Kathleen Kennedy hiring Ronald Bass to revise his prose.
But Spielberg and Kennedy were still dissatisfied with this second draft, leaving Richard LaGravenese to step in for the heavy lifting. LaCravenese was greatly admired by Eastwood, who was already cast as the male lead. It became LaCravenese’s device to tell the story from Francesca’s perspective, Spielberg interjecting the suggestion for a present day pro- and epilogue to bookend the movie. At this juncture, the project was passed along to director, Bruce Beresford, who hired Alfred Uhry to do yet another draft of the screenplay. Beresford and Uhry had shared a rewarding alliance on the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
However, upon completion of this draft, Spielberg chose to divest himself of the project entirely; Warner Bros. and Eastwood preferring LaGravenese’s screenplay and thus, forcing Beresford to quietly drop out from the project altogether. By the time Eastwood agreed to direct as well as star in The Bridges of Madison County he had already established his reputation behind the camera. But he impressed the power structure at WB by bringing in the movie on budget and ten days ahead of its initially scheduled 52 day shoot.
Our story begins in the present: Michael (Vicor Slezak) and Carolyn (Annie Corley), the children of the late Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) are contemplating their mother’s last request; cremation with her ashes to be scattered across a bridge in Madison County near the family home. At first, neither son nor daughter can comprehend what would possess mom to consider anything except burial next to their beloved father, Richard (Jim Haynie). A brief investigation of Francesca’s personal effects reveals a correspondence with one Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), the affectionate tone of the letter causing mild consternation for Michael, who deems it a maternal betrayal. Carolyn sees things differently however.
From here, we regress to four days in 1965; a stifling hot, early fall afternoon at the Iowa farmhouse Richard and Francesca Johnson share with their teenage children. Richard takes Michael and Carolyn to the State Fair for the weekend, leaving Francesca alone in all her bucolic passivity. However, she does not remain alone for very long. On the second day, Francesca meets National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid, who has lost his way on route to taking some pictures of one of the county’s famed covered bridges.
After attempting to explain the way to Robert, Francesca instead decides to simply hop in his truck and take him to the spot – thereby striking up a conversation that eventually turns into drinks, then dinner, then an unexpected rekindling of winter passions neither would have thought possible just a few hours before. The days blend into one emotionally conflicted timeless interim, Francesca’s awakening desire forcing Robert to recognize his own misgivings about the life he has spent in endless travel – nee escape – from his own personal happiness; squandered at best.
Robert proposes an elopement into the night before Richard and Francesca’s children return – a giddy and dizzying foolishness Francesca briefly entertains. After all, she has seen firsthand what small-minded town gossip can do to a woman in love; ever since an affair with the town doctor branded one of the locals, Lucy Redfield (Michelle Benes) a whore. Yet, in contemplating the odds and weighing her options, Francesca’s choice to remain behind is hardly predicated on her own personal happiness. In fact, she has given the matter sincere thought and elected to remain on the side of the family.
After all, how would Richard and the children ever survive such a scandal? Despite the bittersweet acknowledgement that Francesca and Robert probably are soul mates, neither can bring themselves to ruin their carefully tenured lives; the passage of time and choice made along the way having made this love affair too little too late. In the end, Francesca keeps her secrets and her memories locked tight inside her heart, the evidence from their affair stored in an upstairs chest for Michael and Carolyn to uncover after she has passed on.
The Bridges of Madison County is richly rewarding. Eastwood’s fragile performance is perhaps a bit static in spots. We’re never quite convinced he’s convinced the affair is right for Robert Kincaid. Conversely, Streep’s performance is never anything less than exact and genuine. Her Francesca knows exactly what she wants, but wisely realizes she cannot have it – at least for very long. It is largely due to Streep’s subtly nuanced portrait that the story ignites with sparkles of sublime and timeless relevancy about love briefly found, ultimately sacrificed, but undeniably destined to live on beyond the concrete world. In the final analysis, The Bridges of Madison County delivers a bittersweet groundswell of emotional content: an old-fashioned character-driven screen weepy tragically out of fashion in today’s cinema.
The Bridges of Madison County was photographed by Jack N. Green, embracing Eastwood’s predilection for soft, naturalistic light sources. Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray respects the integrity of this subdued look, with a visually sublime and near perfect 1080p offering that will surely not disappoint. The image can be startlingly crisp and thoroughly satisfying in close-up; revealing minute details in clothing fabric and hair, also every last craggy wrinkle in Eastwood’s face. There’s a startling amount of gorgeous detail throughout; a real feast for the eye, the color palette favoring earth tones and generating the golden-hued warmth of early autumn. Best of all, film grain has been accurately replicated, free of untoward digital anomalies and/or artifacts.
The DTS 5.1 audio emphasizes the movie’s rich dialogue and the occasional blues tune; also Lennie Niehaus’ stirring underscore; everything subtly integrated. There are no showy moments in this soundtrack, and yet it perfectly fits the mood of the piece. Extras are limited to carry-overs from the old DVD, including a brief ‘making of’ featurette, informative audio commentary from editor, Joel Cox and cinematographer Jack Green, a music video and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)