Stars: Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Annie Corley, Victor Slezak
Director: Clint Eastwood
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Actress-Meryl Streep)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars
Growing up, I remember the first present for my mom that I ever paid for with my own money (with admittedly a little help from my dad in terms of paying part of the cost). I had saved for weeks from my allowance to buy my parents and brother their Christmas presents, and my mom's I was particularly proud of-I had found at Target (which was thirty miles away from my home town) a copy of Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend. My mom had read and loved the book The Bridges of Madison County, crying while reading it and even buying it in hard cover, which was a big deal in our household. And so I got to give her the book that came after it, also by Robert James Waller. As a result of this childhood memory, the book itself has always fascinated me (and, to couple that present of some twenty years ago, I recently got my mom tickets to see Bridges of Madison County the musical), but not enough to read it as the reviews were never quite kind enough for me to pick it up. Still, I wanted to know the story behind my story, and so in anticipation of seeing the musical, I went out and watched Bridges as a recent Netflix entry.
(Spoilers Ahead) The film was something unexpected, and not just because after almost a decade of relative hamminess in front of the camera, it's strange to see Meryl Streep playing a straight dramatic role, particularly since she's so good at them. The film follows her Francesca, an Italian immigrant who is left alone for four days on an Iowa farm while her husband and two children are at the Illinois State Fair. On the first day, not long after her husband leaves, she meets a man named Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), with whom she is enamored immediately in ways that she's not entirely clear she understands. The film progresses with their relationship starting at friendship, and because this is a romance novel, it ends up becoming something more. All-the-while we are being told this story in flashback, as it's clear from the beginning that Francesca ends up staying with her husband, but as the film progresses we aren't entirely sure why, and her children have never known about this relationship as they learn through old journals their mother kept in a safety deposit box for them to discover upon her death.
As I mentioned above, it's interesting to see Streep play this part as a straight drama, but also for Eastwood to play it that way as well as a director. There is very little humor, and almost no winking at the camera even though, by romance novel standards, this is a relatively schlock-filled affair that usually has a sassy friend to keep up with the leads. I don't think I'll ever investigate the source material here, but one suspects that Eastwood might have cut some fat as he's more willing to put the camera on himself and Streep than anything else, with little in the way of side story and filler. This shouldn't work, and it plays very differently from our American romances today, which are extraordinarily rare (when was the last time you saw a true, non-comedic, non-modernized American film romance onscreen-this is an endangered species, right here) in that we get the urgency and the fragility of this relationship. There's a scene late in the movie where we think that Francesca and Robert will be found out, essentially ruining her life, and Eastwood finds the stakes in this relationship even without factoring in the truth that they are in love, perhaps soulmates, and can Francesca actually leave such a reality in her memories.
This may be the last great dramatic role of Streep's career, give or take The Hours, to date, and it's marvelous watching her onscreen. I love not only the care she brings to her accent work (flawless Italian housewife-Anna Magnani herself couldn't have done better), but also to her humanity. The way she laughs incredibly when she makes a joke about poisonous flowers (the way she informs the audience that she rarely laughs or tells jokes in this way), and the zeal with which she wants to continually extend her first night with Robert. At its very best, it approaches something like Celine-and-Jesse or Russell-and-Glen, something so special and in-the-moment. The movie can never quite capture that late in the film, as Eastwood as the romantic lead feels a bit clunky in delivering Waller's romantic prose, and we are frequently taken out of the story by Francesca's grown children, both unbearable and really every scene not containing Streep is downright terrible, but those early moments are passionate and treasured, and Streep tied it together. I get why my mom, all those years ago, cried on the couch while finishing this story.
Those are my thoughts-what are yours? Are you a fan of The Bridges of Madison County in any of its many iterations? Do you also have a memory of the first gift you ever bought your mom? What do you think of Meryl Streep's almost entire shift into comedy? Share your thoughts below in the comments!