Anyone who loved Robert James Waller’s blockbuster novella The Bridges of Madison County will probably come away from the movie version satisfied that due reverence has been paid. The film re-creates Waller’s melancholy wisp of a narrative — more of an anecdote, really — with a scrupulousness that would shame most Hollywood versions of classic literature. Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, as Waller’s tenderly plaintive heartland lovers, are so visually and spiritually right they seem to have walked right off the page. Yet those who haven’t read the book may like the movie even more. To say that Eastwood, who directed, has done a first-rate job of adaptation fails to do him justice. What he’s brought off is closer to alchemy. He finds the core of sincerity in Waller’s novel — an ordinary woman’s romantic dreams — and then purges the material of its treacly ”poetic” showmanship. As a movie, The Bridges of Madison County is touching in a delicate, almost lyrical way. It’s a wonderful surprise — an honest weeper for adults.
The appeal of Waller’s book lay in its recognition of the fact that, for a lot of people, the most intense experience of romantic love turns out to be incompatible with their daily lives, and is therefore destined to remain a kind of religiously held secret. Set in 1965, Bridges tells the story of Francesca Johnson (Streep), an Italian-born farmwife in her mid-40s who has spent the better part of her life in Madison County, Iowa, raising two children and looking after her kindly lump of a husband. One day, while her family is off at the Illinois State Fair, Francesca has her senses reawakened by Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), a 52-year-old National Geographic photographer who’s a kind of globe-trotting New Age Marlboro Man. He wheels up her driveway in his pickup truck, asking for directions to one of the covered bridges he’s there to shoot, and ends up staying for dinner.
Over the next four days, Francesca and Robert are drawn into a passionate affair. Yet it’s the very intensity of their love that dooms it. On the page, Waller creates a kind of easy-read Edith Wharton scenario, in which romance bleeds fatefully into loss. At the same time (and this is what makes the book so sticky), he fetishizes the fulsome virility of Robert, the wandering artist-stud. The book gazes at him as adoringly as Francesca does, so that after a while it’s Waller who seems to be wooing the reader.
Eastwood and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese shift the focus back to Francesca, in part by taking Robert off his pedestal. The guy actually seems like a recognizable human being now, most notably when Francesca calls him on the evasiveness of his nomadic lifestyle. Eastwood, in this role, has a seductive reticence; he makes sinew and sweetness a natural fit. His most rewarding feat, however, is turning Bridges into a showcase for Streep, who, for the first time in years, succeeds in acting with her heart.
True, she has an Italian accent to play with, but it’s a light one, and it never intrudes upon the spontaneous passion of her performance. We can see the sensuality in Francesca’s Roman-angel lips, in the playful glint of her eyes; Streep has never looked more radiantly beautiful. Yet there are hints of weariness, too, as well as a sneaky side that Francesca barely acknowledges to herself until she makes a tart joke about the bouquet Robert has given her. (The way Streep plays it, I really believed that joke just flew out of her mouth.) The film sets up the two characters in a leisurely waltz of flirtation. Eastwood wants to take us inside the experience, to let us feel the quiet eroticism of a hand brushed against a knee, the intimacy of two strangers fixing dinner and feeling their strangeness melt away. As a director, he works with transcendent plainness, establishing the tremulous moment-to-moment shifts of a romantic encounter.
The framing device, in which Francesca’s grown children discover the affair through her diary and letters, lets us know from the start that Francesca and Robert’s relationship will end. Yet despite our knowledge of the outcome, the film creates undercurrents of emotional suspense: Why did it end? What finally moves us in The Bridges of Madison County is less the affair itself — it’s portrayed modestly, with an occasional lapse into Hallmark cliché — than the film’s enraptured sympathy for all the women who’ve yearned, in equal measure, to be both lover and caretaker. Viewers can disagree about which scene finally makes them lose it. For me it was the one in which the aging Francesca rediscovers the note to Robert she’d tacked up on Roseman Bridge. At that moment, she’s everyone in the audience who ever gave up a dream they’re still holding onto. A