Earlier this year I found myself defending the movie adaptation of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie received almost unanimously terrible reviews. I think, in part, because people were ready to dismiss it based on the reputation of E.L. James’s hugely popular books, which have been maligned for their laughable prose, and for having a largely middle aged female fan-base. Thus, film critics refused to recognize the tiny sparks of wit and genius in a production admittedly tied down by commercial interests and weak source material. A similar thing happened back in 1995, when none other than Clint Eastwood took Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, a novel with a reputation as toxic as Fifty Shades, and turned it into a pretty terrific movie.
Even as a defender of the Fifty Shades adaptation, I will have to admit that Eastwood’s Bridges of Madison County is not only a far superior movie, but a superior piece of pop culture history. I mean, how awesome must it have been to see Eastwood, the embodiment of American masculinity decide to tackle one of the most uncool phenomenons of the decade, and the result was such a delight? Eastwood’s sparse and classic style, of course, ended up being the perfect fit for taking a trite and florid airport read and turn it into a low-key, naturalistic, and charming movie about a love that cannot be. With his measured sensibility, Eastwood was the perfect -if unexpected- voice to introduce melodrama to the mainstream in the 1990s.
Eastwood’s muted direction and Jack N. Green’s warm and beautiful cinematography do a lot of the work, but equal praise must be given to the two lead performances. One by Eastwood himself, who might be doing the best work of his career, and certainly the most surprising as the charming (I know!) Robert. The other is a top-tier Meryl Streep performance. The culture that has deemed Streep the best actress alive seems to be particularly impressed by her chameleonic technique, but her best performances rely on charisma and reality more than in artifice. Case in point, her Italian accent in this movie is far from flawless, but her Francesca is so natural it captures something far more valuable than dialectic perfection. She captures a truthful attitude and connects with the audience in a way only a true movie stars can.
If there is anything wrong with this movie, it’s the unnecessary framing device, but that almost goes without saying. Framing devices are rarely effective, and this one – featuring Francesca’s children learning about their mother’s affair after she dies- adds very little to the movie. I guess it’s supposed to be a way to validate our sympathy for Francesca as a character, which seems redundant considering Meryl’s stellar work. That being said, this is still a deeply good movie. A triumph of committed filmmaking over cultural preconceptions, and perhaps Eastwood’s greatest work as a director.