The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 15 min.

Release Date: June 2nd, 1995 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Clint Eastwood Actors: Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Annie Corley, Victor Slezak, Jim Haynie, Phyllis Lyons, Debra Monk

 


 

T

he Johnson family’s mother has passed away, and her will clearly states that her remains are to be cremated and the ashes thrown off Roseman Bridge. “I’m not even sure it’s Christian.” Her adult children are consternated over the demands, refusing to acquiesce. When Carolyn (Annie Corley) and Michael (Victor Slezak) dig through her safety deposit box, they discover that their mother had had a secret, passionate affair with a man named Robert. And private letters, attorney notes, and three journals confirm it.

Transitioning back to the ’60s in rural Iowa, father Richard Johnson (Jim Haynie), with Carolyn and Michael – teenagers at the time – are set to leave for four days with a prized cow to enter into the state fair. Mother Francesca (Meryl Streep) opts to stay home to enjoy the peace and quiet. On the first day, however, National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) drives up to her property to ask for directions to a few covered bridges in the area, which he’s been assigned to shoot. The instructions aren’t that simple, considering that none of the roads are marked, prompting Francesca to hop into his truck to personally guide him to the spot. And, as it turns out, the two have quite a bit in common.

Robert is a free spirit, unburdened by routines and time constraints and familial responsibilities. Francesca is something of the opposite, continually looking after her loved ones. But perhaps most significant is the contrast of their personalities; he’s outgoing and outspoken, while she’s a bit shy and reserved, unaccustomed to mingling with strangers. Yet his arrival presents the adventure she so desperately needs – the opportunity to break out of her shell, to try something new, to escape the boredom of her largely flavorless housewife life. He exudes an aura as otherworldly as the African safaris he describes when asked about the most exotic place he’s ever visited.

A romance blossoms, and it’s one not typically examined in theatrical features. Although she spies on him while he’s shirtless, this is still far from the edgy, youthful love stories of the era; their attraction is based on charm and humor and kindred spirits. Sex is involved, but they’re both past their primes; this isn’t the standard, visual glorification of six-pack abs and heaving bosoms. Instead, their relationship becomes alluring because Eastwood and Streep are such phenomenal actors, managing to lose themselves in the roles. They exhibit a naturalness and an easygoingness that makes these characters incredibly engaging, even during moments when nothing exceptional is unfolding.

Their story might be small, unglamorous, and generally unexciting, but there’s no denying its pleasantness and significance. Unfortunately, just as viewers get wrapped up in their tale, the film cuts back to the present day to show Carolyn and Michael reading the notebooks together (somewhat awkwardly), commenting on interpretations of the events just – or about to be – visualized. It’s a terribly unnecessary framing device, and one that gets more annoying every subsequent time it intervenes and the more detailed their involvement becomes. When Francesca’s voice takes over the narration, it’s also jarring, but at least it’s a direct, intimate piece of the story.

“It was a perfect evening, just the way it was.” With enchanting music by Eastwood regular Lennie Niehaus, and an unhurried, simple, convincing screenplay, “The Bridges of Madison County” is that rare picture full of warmth and emotion without depicting anything larger-than-life or out-of-this-world. Believable, tender, mature, down-to-earth human drama can be mesmerizing all by itself.

And, indeed, as the film explores the longing, temptation, regret, guilt, denial, complications, and consequences associated with love-at-first-sight dalliances, the realism becomes sobering, threatening to shatter the fantasy of such a seductive romance. It can only end one way, of course, considering that the bookending technique previously revealed their fate – as well as taking place long after the central affair, with unimportant supporting characters. And concluding too many minutes after their parting only stretches out the running time and dulls the potency; it’s such an aggravatingly poor way to finish such an otherwise powerful love story.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10