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"The Bridges of Madison County" (Warner Brothers, Amblin, Malpasso 1995) A Sentimental Success

Film review: 'Bridges of Madison County'

Genius manifests itself in many unique ways. Picasso's genius appeared in figures on canvass, Charlie Parker's from the mouth of his saxophone, Frank Lloyd Wright's in concrete, wood, steel , plaster and glass. I think genius should be looked at as one person's ability to express themselves, their art, in one way above all others, above the rest of us. I can not think of a film actor who even comes close to the genius of Meryl Streep.

I went to see "The Bridges of Madison County", expecting a pleasant, quiet, touching film, perhaps a little clumsily handled by a director known for action pictures. The theatre was full of couples. Most of them in middle age. I wondered if the men had come grudgingly, convinced to attend, finally, by the Clint Eastwood factor. As the lights came up two and a quarter hours later, and the sniffling and sighing rippled through the otherwise silent audience, I was thrilled to see that the film had reached nearly everyone, regardless of gender.

Based on a novel by Robert James Waller, "The Bridges of Madison County" tells the story of an unlikely romance that blossoms between a world weary National Geographic photographer, and a woman who has settled into the routine of farm life in the American Midwest. When Robert Kincaid turns into her driveway lost, map in hand, looking for covered bridges to photograph, Francesca Johnson offers to show him where to find his subject. Left alone for a few days, while her husband Richard and their two teenaged children have gone to a livestock fair, Francesca gives in to this spontaneous impulse, and sets in motion the mechanism of the broader story.

This is not really a story of a short lived romance, but rather one that examines the differences between the expectations that society heaps on men and on women. Kincaid, played with surprising depth by Eastwood, is unattached, has no family, no roots that keep him in one place. He travels the globe on assignment, with only his camera and the contents of one duffel bag to weigh him down. He is very satisfied with his life and his freedom.

Francesca, a war bride who met Richard Johnson in her native Italy, has left behind any sense of herself as a woman, and has become a mother, and wife, and lives within the restrictions that come with those labels. When Kincaid arrives so unexpectedly but, with such fortunate timing, at her doorstep, Francesca looks inside herself and finds that she is still more than wife and mother, that she is still a passionate, feeling person, who craves to give and to get, the intimacy and youthful recklessness that can best be had with a new lover. In four days, the two find in one another something that will cause them both to re-examine their lives; to risk starting over, together.

Meryl Streep's Francesca is a wonderfully complete character. She is written with a sensitive balance of strength and resignation, an attractive humour and intelligence. She absorbs her time with Kincaid insatiably and with the same energy that she rages at him for casually sliding into her life and for having the freedom to slide out again just as easily.

Streep has given some brilliant performances in her career already. Until "The Bridges of Madison County", watching a film with Meryl Streep, was just that. A lot of us went to see how well she tackled a particular character, or accent. Indeed, the principal drawback to casting a film from well known actors is that their celebrity very often detracts from their performances. Audiences are continually comparing them to their last effort, and miss a lot of what the actors can actually do.

I was able to forget, in the first ten minutes of "The Bridges of Madison County", that I was watching an actress perform. I had the guilty flush and embarrassment of feeling like I was eavesdropping; invading the space and life of a real person. Meryl Streep, whoever she is, was nowhere to be found in this film. Francesca Johnson, a manufactured person, a fictional entity, was brought as close to life as such a character can be.

Richard LaGravenese, who co-scripted, also wrote:
"The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996)
"Unstrung Heroes" (1995)
"The Ref" (1994)
"Fisherking" (1991)


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