#7 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
Based on the popular novel by Robert James Waller and with a script by Richard LaGravenese (supposedly shepherded along by Steven Spielberg when he was considering directing the project), Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County is a departure from the kinds of movies he’d been making for a while, but also seems like a counter to his earlier Breezy. This is the kind of film that David Lean was making with The Passionate Friends and Brief Encounter and would have fit more comfortably in his body of work than Eastwood’s, telling a tale of temporary passion that gives away to more permanent states despite the pain of letting go. That Eastwood handles the story with such delicate tact and gentleness is a testament to his continually growing abilities as a filmmaker.
After the death of Francesca (Meryl Streep) in the 1990s, her two children Carolyn (Annie Corley) and Michael (Victor Slezak) convene at the little Iowa farmhouse she had called home since coming to America from Italy decades before to deal with her affairs. In her safety deposit box, they find the opening to a narrative of four days in the mid-60s when Francesca had an affair with a National Geographic photographer named Robert Kincaid (Eastwood) at the same time that the children and their father, Richard (Jim Haynie), left home for the Iowa State Fair. One of my favorite things about this film is the framing device itself. It could have just disappeared for the bulk of the film, used merely as bookends to Francesca’s story, but it gives the children the opportunity to see and learn from their mother’s humanity one final time, giving them their own arcs that coincide with Francesca’s.
Francesca in the 1960s was a content housewife and former teacher who is seeing the end of her time as an active mother with both of her children no more than a couple of years from moving out to start their own lives. Richard is a good man, and she has nothing to complain about beyond the dreams of her youth that never came true. On her first day of relative freedom with the family gone, into her driveway arrives Kincaid looking for directions to one of the covered bridges in the county. Since the roads are hard to navigate without intimate knowledge of who owns which house, Francesca decides to just tag along and show him. That leads to Francesca offering to cook him dinner, and the two steadily see something in the other that is out of reach but right there at the same time.
Francesca started her life in a small, eastern Italian town and jumped at the chance of marrying an American GI to see the world and make it to America, an exotic place, and what she got was the quiet life on a farm in the American heartland. Kincaid is a wandering spirit with no roots anywhere and sees himself as a citizen of the world. In him, she sees the kind of exciting life that she had promised herself. In her, he sees a kind of permanent companion who could share his wayward life. Steadily, over the next few days, they grow increasingly intimate until they feel like they are two sides of the same person.
However, the contrast to Breezy is important, I think. Breezy was pure fantasy fulfillment, and The Bridges of Madison County edges into it for a time with Francesca feeling like she can have everything she wants if she simply leaves behind her simple, little life. However, real life has trade-offs, and despite the joys she feels in Kincaid’s arms, she knows that her leaving would hurt a lot of people, most of all her good husband Richard. This really ends up feeling like Laura sitting with her husband after having just said goodbye to Alec in Brief Encounter. Francesca makes the selfless decision to stay for her family. There are a few other things swimming around this decision, mostly the feeling that the specialness of the four days will dissipate as soon as they go off together forever, a feeling that is selfish in its own right. She wants to preserve the feeling of love she harbors for Kincaid in amber forever.
What gives all of this an extra dimension is the children. Michael can barely stand to listen to the tale of his mother’s torrid love affair, but what he’s actually going through is learning that his mother was human. Carolyn being a woman going through her own marital troubles has a base understanding of Francesca’s mindset that Michael doesn’t share, and she learns something different. She learns that life in a small town can be fulfilling, that dedication has its own rewards, and that maybe she can try to find common ground with her husband after all. It’s a very good way to use the wraparound story to reinforce all of the thematic ideas in the core story while advancing it into the next generation.
Acting is what really makes the movie beyond its script, and there’s so much to appreciate. The center of the film is Meryl Streep as Francesca, pulling off an accent, of course, but she really does embody the character of a housewife with lost dreams given her chance to maybe live them again. Her final moments in the truck as she watches Kincaid drive away are wonderful. Eastwood is also good, though I think he understood his own limits. There’s a bit of trivia that Eastwood turned away from the camera when it came to his crying moment, and I have a suspicion that he knew that he wouldn’t be able to sell it all that well. He left it to the audience to interpret, and it was the right choice. The two adult children are very good as well, creating their own emotional arcs that really resonate.
This is really a wonderful film. A quality script filmed well by Eastwood while he manages his actors to strong performances is a very good combination to build a movie on. Eastwood was on a bit of a tear in the early to mid-1990s, and this just continues it.
4 thoughts on “The Bridges of Madison County”
Another well made movie that leaves me cold. And that is almost entirely due to Francesca. I will admit that movies about infidelity, especially ones that glorify it, make me angry. I’m sure Robert doesn’t care about banging married women, to a man like that, it might even be preferable. Fewer complications and attachments if you bang married chicks, is one theory. In fact, Robert actually falling in love with Francesca might be the most unbelievable part of the story.
But this is a romance, you either lean into plot contrivance and believe in it, or you don’t. The same is true of most genre works, and much of fiction probably. Me, I bounce off this story. I do love a good romance, but one that has infidelity as the spice….nah.
I do appreciate the overarching plot, that she chose not to leave her family, but I question her reasons for that too. If she’d chosen her husband out of love for him, rather than duty, I’d like her more. I gotta say though, if my Mother had an affair, I really don’t want that information. It would, in fact, color my view of her forever. And if my Father used to bugger pigs in the barn, I wouldn’t want to know that, either. Even if it would mean he was ‘human’.
I HAD to watch this movie, I suppose. I am from Iowa and everyone had to. But I’ll never say that I loved the experience. Clint did a fine job shooting and pacing the story. It’s well made, just not what I want.
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When you said that you had to watch it, I expected a story about trying to get laid, to be honest.
Something should be said for how Francesca completely ghosted Kincaid when they parted. He wrote to her, but she never responded. There were surely other opportunities where she could have sent a letter to get him to come for one more weekend getaway, in an effort to try and recapture the feeling of those few days, and she never did. Her reasoning (explained during a high emotional moment) may not be the most honorable thing, but her actions afterwards seem to imply a much sterner core to her character.
Point taken. I still didn’t like her. I guess…you cross a line, it’s hard for me to forgive that. A flaw in my character, Mea Culpa.