Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep and Richard LaGravenese have pooled their resources and turned "The Bridges of Madison County," a literary sow's ear if ever there was one, into a surprisingly serviceable cotton purse. This is so unexpected an accomplishment that no one is likely to care they haven't gotten all the way to silk.
Few books have been subjected to so much critical opprobrium, or shrugged it off so casually, as Robert James Waller's slender story of a passionate four-day affair between a careworn Iowa housewife and a charismatic National Geographic photographer. Written in a grotesque style that goes well beyond self-parody, this pumped-up Harlequin novel has spent a prosperous three years on hardcover bestseller lists and isn't about to leave.
Yet any book that sells that many copies, no matter how mawkish, has to have a core that connects with an audience, and screenwriter LaGravenese ought to get the Croix de Guerre for doing battle with Waller's fatuous prose and paring "Bridges" down to its most appealing fantasy romance essence.
LaGravenese, who is having a remarkable summer with "A Little Princess" already out and Diane Keaton's "Unstrung Heroes" on the way, has understood that the worst of "Bridges" is not in its dialogue but in the silent musings that occupy its characters' minds. By keeping those thoughts unspoken, by allowing the camera to show instead of having words tell, much has been accomplished.
Unfortunately the least successful aspect of the movie "Bridges" is a newly added extended framing device that opens the proceedings. Set in the present, it introduces Francesa Johnson's two children, Caroline (Annie Corley) and Michael (Victor Slezak), arriving at a worn Iowa farmhouse after their mother's death to deal with her estate.
Both children are shocked, shocked , to hear that Francesa wants to be cremated with her ashes scattered over Roseman Bridge, a landmark in the area. And as they discover the even more disturbing letters and journals that detail her secret life, their obtuse comments about "some damn perverted photographer" and the generally careless, pro forma way these sequences have been put together, lead to fears for the worst.
But once "Bridges" flashes back to 1965, everything settles down. Here is Francesa (Streep), looking forward to the quiet that will result when husband Richard (Jim Haynie) and their already bratty kids take off for the Illinois state fair with a prize steer. A chance, she thinks, to spend four days as a lady of leisure with only her dog for company.
But not long after the family leaves, a man pulls up in an artistically battered pickup. It's Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), a photographer for National Geographic on assignment to photograph Madison County's celebrated covered bridges. Could she direct him to Roseman Bridge? With little else to do, Francesa impulsively decides to take him there personally.
Soon they are sharing confidences, as he tells her of his wanderings around the world in search of just the right light and she of her Italian upbringing and a life as a war bride and farm wife that "isn't what I dreamed of as a girl." Once they begin quoting Yeats to each other, the kind of romance that mostly appears on books with Fabio on the cover can't help but follow.
Especially after his Oscar for "Unforgiven," Clint Eastwood's bona fides as a filmmaker are not in question but the Man With No Name is still an unlikely choice for "Bridges," for what 50 years ago would've been called a classic women's picture. But Eastwood's sturdy utilitarianism, the spareness and efficiency that characterize his style, are actually what this kind of material, which is susceptible to being as overheated as Waller's prose, most needs.
You can, however, have too much of a good thing, and one of "Bridges' " persistent problems is that it is more genteel, restrained and reverential than it ought to be. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it takes more time to watch than the 171-page book takes to read, and though no one will be expecting a sequel to "Speed," a little more pace would have helped.
Balancing this weakness, however, is a performance of exceptional strength by Streep. Though it is easy to mock her love of accents (she gives herself a slight Italian one though the book does not), it remains true that when she is right, as she is here, she has the magic of believability about her. She makes Francesca more real than she ever was on the page, and watching her build the character, being alternately nervous, flustered, comic and filled with yearning, underlines how lucky the film is to have her as one of its stars.
And, more unexpected, she and Eastwood turn out to have considerable rapport on screen and are easily believable in the genteel love scenes that make up the most anticipated part of the movie. Partly because they come from different poles of acting--he being the prototypical intuitive actor, she the brilliantly schooled technician--they have an opposites-attract quality, like the captain of the football team suddenly taking an interest in the smartest girl in the class. Without the distraction of the soft-core thoughts that litter the book, their chemistry is quite enjoyable, at least up to a point.
For the final problem that besets "The Bridges of Madison County," the problem that no amount of talent can make go away, is that Robert Kincaid is about as real a person as Little Lord Fauntleroy, a wish-fulfillment cartoon of masculinity whose success as a fantasy figure led directly to the book's enormous financial success but creates believability problems when transferred to the screen.
It's worse in Waller's version, where Kincaid is variously described as "a half-man, half-something-else creature" and "not of this earth" and is such a paragon he even shuts the screen door gently. LaGravenese's script and Eastwood's ability to play Kincaid completely without affect help soften this, but we are still left with a Sensitive New Age Guy who talks about "embracing the mystery" and has not a single rough edge to hang onto. Always saying and doing the right thing at the right time, Kincaid is a snore as a character, and a snore is the last thing this excessively modulated movie really needs.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sexuality and brief strong language. Times guidelines: The overall tone is gentility itself.
'The Bridges of Madison County'
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Clint Eastwood Robert Kincaid
Meryl Streep: Francesa Johnson
Annie Corley: Caroline
Victor Slezak: Michael
Jim Haynie: Richard Johnson
An Amblin/Malpaso production, released by Warner Bros. Director Clint Eastwood. Producers Clint Eastwood, Kathleen Kennedy. Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Robert James Waller. Cinematographer Jack N. Green. Editor Joel Cox. Costumes Colleen Kelsall. Music Lennie Niehaus. Production design Jeannine Oppewall. Art director William Arnold. Set designer Jay Hart. Running time: 2 hour, 15 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.