Review: The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

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It was in March 1995 that Eastwood was honoured with the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award, his previous two films each having been declared the best of their respective years by Cahiers du Cinema. Rapidly becoming recognized and revered as one of the great directors of American cinema, he extended his critical and commercial success yet further with The Bridges of Madison County, later declared by Cahiers as the best film of its decade.

Shortly after her death, the two adult children of Francesca Johnson discover their mother’s diaries and private letters. Delving into her past, they read of a four-day affair with National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, revealing the deep secrets Francesca kept hidden for decades.

With The Bridges of Madison County Eastwood managed to once more produce a complex and challenging reassessment of themes he had addressed earlier in his oeuvre. Upon its release, the director remarked that “it’s a very simple film”, and while this is indeed true in narrative terms, it is anything but so when it comes to the themes in which Eastwood trades. A major affixation of the film is with the American dream, particularly focusing upon Francesca’s experience with it and the way in which the reality so wholly differs from her expectations thereof. She gives up her career as a schoolteacher in order to raise her family at the express request of her husband; patriarchal society assigns her a traditional female role, putting the needs of the family above the needs of the matriarch.

In exploring Francesca’s frustration within her life as a housewife, the film asks us how well we know our own mothers, detailing their latent hopes and suppressed passions, and exploring the sacrifices they have made for our benefit. “It’s not what I dreamed of… as a girl” Francesca mournfully remarks when asked by Robert whether she is happy in life. His independence fascinates her, so wholly different is it to the life she feels weighed down by. Existing outside the society which has marginalized Francesca’s ambitions, Robert reinvigorates her sense of romanticism and adventure, revitalizing her with a youthful warmth, providing her with a new way to find the satisfaction and happiness she cannot attain within the confines of the family unit.

The relationship is only as believable as the actors who convey it, and therein the film excels. Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance is strikingly naturalistic, the combination of her convincing accent and shyly flirtatious mannerisms giving us a fully shaped and completely realized character. Playing against his own archetype of overt masculinity, the sensitivity and vulnerability Eastwood brings to the role is all the more convincing. Their courtship is slow, even unwilling — a subplot concerns the shunning of a local adulteress by the community — but deeply involving and incredibly charming. The smiles induced by their finding in each other that which their respective lives lack are matched in emotional effect only by the tears brought on by the inevitable end to their affair, and the gut-wrenching realization that this forbidden romance must come to an end.

The Bridges of Madison County is not only a feminist film, but an inherently humanist one too: an ode to unfulfilled passions and the sacrifices we must make in life. Beautifully soft lighting highlights the effulgent tenderness of this deeply affecting and painfully tragic tale, dealing in sensitive romantic issues but never stooping to mawkish or saccharine sentiment. Of his feelings for Francesca, Robert remarks that “certainty like this comes but once in a lifetime”. Similarly, films this emotionally exhilarating come but once in a career; with The Bridges of Madison County Eastwood crafts one of the most delicately wrought, painfully tragic, and quietly sensitive romances the screen has ever seen.

[notification type=”star”]89/100 – Films this emotionally exhilarating come but once in a career; with The Bridges of Madison County Eastwood crafts one of the most delicately wrought, painfully tragic, and quietly sensitive romances the screen has ever seen.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.