World-traveling National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) and Iowa housewife Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) aren't looking to turn their lives upside down. Each is at a point in life where expectations are behind them. Yet four days after meeting, they won't want to lose the love they've found. Academy Award winners Meryl Streep (earning her 10th Oscar nomination for this performance) and Clint Eastwood (who also produces and directs) bring star power and conviction to the beloved characters of Robert James Waller's best selling story of love, choice and consequence. With luck, a love like that happens to some of us sooner or later. For Robert and Francesca, it was later. And it was glorious.
It has been years since I read Robert James Waller's book, 'The Bridges of Madison County', but I do remember wondering what all the fuss was about. Sappy, lyrical (but not in a good way), and brief (at less than 200 pages, it's really more of a novella than a novel), I found nothing particularly remarkable about the story – during which an Iowa housewife engages in a four-day affair with a National Geographic photographer who has arrived in the area to photograph the county's cover bridges. Of course, anyone alive during the mid-1990s remembers how this story took the country by storm, thanks in no small part to Oprah Winfrey's admission on her television show that it was her favorite book of the year. It went on to sell approximately 50 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books of all-time.
Steven Spielberg's Amblin entertainment actually bought the film rights to the book before publication, meaning they had spent very little to get their hands on what turned into a very hot property. After a number of different screenwriters and a number of different directors attached to it (including Sydney Pollack and Bruce Beresford), the project eventually wound up being turned over to Clint Eastwood, who had been cast very early on to play the male lead, Robert Kincaid. In addition to starring and directing, Eastwood would also serve as one of the film's producers (the other being Kathleen Kennedy).
The screenplay by Richard LaGravenese takes a number of small, but significant deviations from Waller's original book. The most important of these is that it switches the story from being told through Kincaid's eyes to that of housewife Francesca Johnson, a role that Eastwood hand-picked (and lobbied for) Meryl Streep to play. Secondly, it gives the story a framing structure built around the adult children of Francesca, who learn of her affair with Kincaid after the death of both characters.
It probably goes without saying that Streep is fantastic (unsurprisingly, she garnered another Best Actress nomination for her performance, although she lost to Susan Sarandon for Dead Man Walking). The real revelation is Eastwood as Kincaid, who shows a kind of vulnerability here that we haven't seen in other performances – either before or since. On the bonus featurette on this release, Editor Joel Cox tells viewers he's going to let them in on a little secret: Eastwood's performance as Kincaid is the closest he's ever given to how Clint is in real life. Eastwood himself even admits on the bonus featurette that, while he's never spent any weekends with an Iowa housewife, he could relate to Kincaid's 'loner' lifestyle.
If there were any doubt before 1995 that Eastwood was one of our generation's greatest directors (and there shouldn't have been, as he'd already won the Oscar for Unforgiven and had impressed with the critically acclaimed (but woefully underseen by the public) A Perfect World, the movie he helmed between his Oscar win and 'Bridges'), all questions were put to rest with this film. Just take a look at the climactic scene, which involves Francesca making her decision as to whether she will stay with her husband and children or leave with Kincaid. The scene contains no dialogue, takes place in the middle of a rainstorm, and has the two main characters separated from each other – yet it is easily the most powerful moment in the film, thanks to Eastwood's direction (and, of course, to the acting abilities of the two leads). A hundred years from now, when some film class is studying Eastwood's career, this scene will be right at the top of those being broken down and diagnosed. It's a brilliant piece of filmwork.
My biggest problem with the movie is the framing bits with Francesca's grown children (played by Annie Corley and Victor Slezak). While the film uses these scenes as a way of those characters finding out about their mother (and, in turn, being able to deal with their own individual marriages), the acting here is just not on par with the rest of the movie – particularly that of Victor Slezak, who almost seems to be part of a different film altogether. It's not entirely his fault, as Eastwood has relegated him to be the comic relief of 'Bridges' – the freaked-out son who can't believe his mother cheated on his father. However, I'm not sure the movie needed these moments, and 'The Bridges of Madison County' is a little bit weaker because of them.
Despite my reservations about the framing mechanism, 'The Bridges of Madison County' is still a very good movie, thanks in no small part to the chemistry (and acting ability) of the two leads and the direction by Eastwood. How many times have we heard angry moviegoers upset that the film version of their beloved story wasn't nearly as good what was on the written page? This is one of those rare exceptions where the movie is much better than the book.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Bridges of Madison County' arrives on Blu-ray in an eco-friendly Elite keepcase with no inserts. The 50GB dual-layer disc isn't front-loaded with any trailers, and the menu is another standard Warner Bros. one, with a still image (the same as the box cover) and menu selections running across the bottom of the screen. This being a Warner Bros. Blu-ray, the disc is region free.
Although Warners lists the aspect ratio on the back box cover as 1.85:1, they've actually opened it up to 1.78:1 – as they do with almost every Blu-ray release with an original 1.85:1 ratio. The transfer of the movie, which was shot on 35mm film, is a very nice one. Grain is still evident in the picture, but it's been nicely pushed to the background. There are virtually no instances of dirt, scratches, or other issues with the print. The movie retains its warm theatrical look, without ever becoming oversaturated. Details are evident, without showing signs of being oversharpened. Black levels are solid throughout. The best thing I can say about this transfer is that the movie still looks like film – so while it doesn't 'pop' like something shot digitally, it retains the naturalistic appearance that Eastwood intended for the movie.
The English audio is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that more than serves its purpose here. Since the movie consists primarily of characters standing or sitting around talking to each other, there's very little in the track in terms of directionality or much rear activity. Dialogue is primarily front and center. However, when the movie's soundtrack or several songs kick in, the audio comes to life. There's some immersive qualities too, most noticeable during a rain storm in the film's climatic scene. For the most part, though, this is a restrained – although well-balanced and crisp – lossless track.
In addition to the English track, the Blu-ray contains a wide selection of tracks in other languages, consisting of Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish (Castilian), Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish (Latin), Dolby Digital 5.1 German, Dolby Digital 5.1 Italian, Dolby Digital 2.0 Czech, Dolby Digital 2.0 Hungarian, Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese, Dolby Digital 2.0 Portuguese, and Dolby Digital 2.0 Polish. Subtitles are also available in English SDH, French, German SDH, Italian SDH, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin), Japanese, Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Cantonese), Korean, Portuguese, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian.
All the bonus features on this release have been ported over from the 2008 'Deluxe Edition' (which also appeared on a DVD repackaged version that came out in 2010).
Overall, 'The Bridges of Madison County' is a wonderful movie, and near the top of Eastwood's resume for both his best-directed and best-acted projects. It's a film that doesn't feel the need for action or quick edits to tell its story. It primarily consists of two strangers who meet, talk about their viewpoint of life, and fall in love in the process. It's small, quiet, and simple (three 'no-no's' for today's demanding audiences), but a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It's one of the few movies that is worlds better than the source material upon which it is based. Recommended.