The Bridges of Madison County / Clint Eastwood (1995; Warner Bros.)
The life-changing instance of reason defeating desire has been at the center of such great melodramatic moments as the airport climax of Casablancaand the railway station farewell of Brief Encounter, but for this viewer its most powerful incarnation comes towards the end of The Bridges of Madison County, Clint Eastwood’s 1995 tear-jerking classic, which somehow transcends Robert James Waller’s purplish novel. Notable for Eastwood’s unusually relaxed performance alongside Meryl Streep’s traditionally controlled one, the film depicts a romance that’s not only transnational (Francesca is an Italian émigré in Iowa, Robert a “National Geographic” reporter and an echt-American, pop-Hemingway figure), but also transgressive in that it violates the taboo of extra-marital love still alive in a 1960s Midwest. Even the title suggests making a cross from one state of being to another, and as we see Francesca, quietly devoted to the provincial life of homemaking she’s chosen, we immediately sense that there’s still something in her forever looking for a change. When Robert arrives, that something is triggered, and it results in some of the most delicate scenes of adult on-screen flirtation ever captured, with Eastwood’s unfaltering ear for jazz providing the softest of padding to the images of two mature people slowly finding their way to the enjoyment of each other’s touch.
Meryl Streep is never simply intuitive in her acting, and here she is doing her belabored Anna Magnani shtick (complete with accent and haircut), but maybe because we are so used to seeing her in full control of every effect and shading, there is something resoundingly true about this particular performance. When her great, rain-drenched scene finally arrives and she clutches at the car door handle, about to run away from her tepid (if caring) husband into the arms of Robert, we fully understand why she ultimately gives up and bursts into tears. Streep is one of the few great contemporary actresses who never seems relaxed in a role — even her supposedly carefree turns, like the prancing and shouting of Mamma Mia, have a feel of careful calculation. Her Francesca is thus totally believable as a woman who flirts with the possibility of change and yet turns away from it as too dangerous — Streep, too, never allowed herself to be casual with us, never invited us into her inner world the way Debra Winger, Gena Rowlands or Viola Davis did and do. But that very thing works perfectly in Bridges, yielding what I believe to be the actress’ greatest, most moving performance. Eastwood, who has made a career of peddling archetypal masculinity as the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry, is also strongly attuned to femininity and often places women at the center of his narratives (think 2004's Million Dollar Baby), or else challenges received wisdom of what it means to be a man (as in 2011's queer-minded J. Edgar and the story of the falsetto-wielding Frankie Valli in last year’s Jersey Boys). In The Bridges of Madison County, Eastwood is at his most pensive and relaxed, paying tribute to the kind of courage it takes not to grab at things that seem like short cuts to happiness. The film is a romance of self-deprivation in the name of others; a near-masochistic act of compassion towards willful self-sacrifice of a spouse. In its own quiet way, it remains one of the most humble and moving of all modern melodramas, despite the two decades that have passed since its premiere.