Friday, February 21, 2014

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Director: Clint Eastwood                                Writer: Richard LaGravenese
Film Score: Lennie Niehaus                           Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Annie Corley and Victor Slezak

Whatever deficiencies there are in Robert James Waller’s novel The Bridges of Madison County, lack of popularity wasn’t one of them. The book was a titanic success, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for over three years. Critically, however, it certainly hasn’t held up over the years. It’s an overly sentimental story that’s overwritten but nevertheless struck a chord with readers. The conceit of the book is that it is the actual diaries of a woman from Iowa whose children only discover them once she has died. Unbeknownst to them, their mother had an affair with a photographer from Seattle who was there shooting the covered bridges in the county. Steven Spielberg’s production company bought the rights to the book before it had even been published. Spielberg originally wanted Sydney Pollack to direct but he dropped out and eventually Clint Eastwood, who had already been signed as the lead, agreed to direct.

The Bridges of Madison County opens with Annie Corley and Victor Slezak coming back to their childhood home, the farm where their parents spent their entire adult lives. While reading the will certain cryptic letters come to their attention, specifically a letter from Eastwood to Streep, and a key that unlocks the chest where she had her diaries that they begin reading. The bulk of the film is told in flashback, beginning with the children leaving with their father for the state fair. Eastwood drives up to the house and asks directions from Streep to one of the covered bridges he’s supposed to photograph for the magazine. When the directions become too convoluted, she goes with him and that leads to dinner. A woman with a family, she’s very intrigued by this man who lives out of his truck, all by himself without anyone to rely on. The more time she spends with him the more she is drawn to his easy manner and his obvious love of life.

After dinner on the second night they both make the decision to pursue a romantic relationship and Streep gives herself up to him completely. She goes with him on his photo shoots, and they spend all of the next two days together. But Eastwood is very realistic about the whole thing, understanding that they only have a couple of days together and gently reminding her about this a couple of times. He’s surprised, then, when she suddenly becomes angry that he’s apparently being so cavalier about the whole thing, all of which leads to a very realistic but unsettling conclusion. Spielberg originally had Isabella Rossellini in mind to play the part of the housewife but Eastwood lobbied for Streep and eventually won out. It was the better choice. Streep transforms herself into the war bride twenty years after, stuck in the kitchen, tired of life, but sacrificing her own happiness for her family. With Eastwood, however, she doesn’t have to. He’s no Lothario, just someone who completely appreciates her and she responds in kind.

Personally, I enjoyed the novel, but then I read it after I’d seen the film. And while the prose is certainly purple, the core story that screenwriter Richard LaGravenese extracted from the book is still there. Eastwood, however, takes it one step further, imbuing the film with his own personal stamp in a number of ways. The most obvious is through his choice of music. Relying on lesser-known works by Dinah Washington and the rich vocals of Johnny Hartman, as well as the score by Lennie Niehaus, he created a unique soundtrack that not only strongly evoked the era but perfectly fit the images on the screen. Eastwood is also incredibly comfortable with silence, allowing his actors to work a realm of European realism that is rarely seen in Hollywood films. The leads are great, as expected and Annie Corley does a nice job as the daughter, but Victor Slezak is a bit too cartoonish to be believable. The Bridges of Madison County is not for everyone, but as a powerful romance it is definitely effective.

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