Welcome back for Day 5 of our Spotlight Series on the films of Clint Eastwood! Today we’re going to be talking about a movie that is different than any we’ve discussed so far this week–heck, it’s different than most other films he made in the entirety of his decades-long career. Grab the tissues and get ready to experience a lot of feelings, because we’re diving into the 1995 romantic drama (adapted from the novel of the same name), The Bridges of Madison County.
Bridges is another film directed by Eastwood, co-starring everyone’s favorite feminine powerhouse, Meryl Streep. The pair have pretty incredible chemistry, and several scenes are downright steamy. A far cry from the “where’d my glasses go?” humor of a charmingly middle-aged Alec Baldwin/Diane Keaton movie, this gem pits two legit movie titans, no longer in the dewy bloom of youth, together against the world. Streep is 46, Eastwood is 65, but both are still incredibly sexy. I don’t fully know how to describe it, but there just…aren’t a lot of movies like this. Hollywood doesn’t tell a ton of nuanced love stories about people over the age of 35, and when those movies DO come along, it’s as if they can’t stop themselves from pointing out how out of touch the couple is with whatever youth culture is popular at the time. Either that, or it’s a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, and you know damn well someone’s going to die in a mudslide or be diagnosed with melanoma. Bridges, however, wastes no time on maudlin deathbed soliloquies, or cheap “come help me figure out my iPad!” jokes (or, you know, the 90s equivalent). What separates this movie from others that people will be tempted to lump it with, is just how serious the film is. There are brief snatches of joy and tender comedy interspersed throughout, but mostly, the word I’d use to describe it is aching. It’s a gorgeous story about two real people who fall into real love. It’s not a tawdry affair between two bored, unhappy souls; it’s two people meeting, expecting nothing, but sensing down in their bones that they’ve met the person they should have been with, had circumstances been different.
The story takes place predominantly on a farm in rural Iowa, where Francesca (Streep), an Italian war bride, lives with her husband and two young children. She is content with the simple life she leads, and while her marriage is not one of joyful camaraderie and earth-shaking passion, her husband is a kind, well-meaning man. Then, when he takes the kids away to the State Fair for a few days, Francesca happens upon photographer Robert Kincaid (Eastwood). Robert is in town on assignment from National Geographic, planning to shoot a series on some beautiful, historic bridges in the area. Without intending anything scandalous, the two get to know one another, and over the course of a few days they fall deeply in love. I know, I know. Four days isn’t enough time, blah blah blah. But there’s just something about these two characters, these two actors, that makes you believe it. They each know they’ve found a life’s companion in the other, but Francesca already has a family that she can’t justify leaving. Robert wants to run away together and seize happiness for themselves, but Francesca believes that she has to prioritize the life she already has–that it’s too late to start again.
I love this movie. The ONLY reason I deducted half a star in my rating is that there’s kind of a stupid framing device running throughout, which rears its head every time you think you’ve forgotten about it. Basically, at the beginning of the movie, Francesca has died and her two adult children are summoned to the Iowa farmhouse to hear the reading of the will, as well as her final wishes for her remains. They’ve lived their lives knowing nothing of their mother’s infidelity, so it’s quite a shock to them when they learn, not only of its existence, but that she wants to have her ashes scattered over one of the famed, covered bridges in Madison County. Two guesses why. All of the interactions we see between Francesca and Robert are taking place in flashback– they’re memories recorded in diaries by Francesca, and serve as a way of explaining her wishes for cremation to her two surviving children. Which brings me to the annoying part of this framing device: Francesca’s son, Michael. I mean, I get that his disbelief and outrage are the catalyst for the story (every time he learns a new piece of information, he’s all like “Whaaaaaaaat?! How could she feel this way/do this thing?!”, and the sister has to placate him with inane comments like “Calm down, let’s just hear a little bit more!”), but it gets extremely tiresome. I think certain parts of the device work–the items Robert leaves to Francesca in his own will, and the fact that they don’t die in each other’s arms, but instead pass on separately, of natural causes, many years apart– but mostly, the kids just make me want to punch them.
That aside, if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and seek this movie out. Yes, it’s a romantic drama, and yes, you might need a few Kleenex to sustain you. But this is a beautiful, extremely well-crafted movie, and if the man in your life won’t watch it with you…WATCH IT WITH YOURSELF. As Richard Corliss from TIME Magazine puts it: “Madison County is Eastwood’s gift to women: to Francesca, to all the girls he’s loved before– and to Streep, who alchmizes literary mawkishness into intelligent movie passion.”
Tomorrow, join me again as I delve into the film that won Eastwood his second Oscar for Best Director: Million Dollar Baby (2004). This one’s a doozy, so don’t miss it!