The Bridges Of Madison County

I had my reservations before sitting down to watch Clint Eastwood’s mid-90s weepie: this was exactly the kind of slow, autumnul, po-faced drama The Academy seemed to favour throughout the 1990s to the detriment of more abrasive, interesting, daring and exciting movies; plus I’ve heard many times over the years that this film progresses at a snail’s pace, and I have a love/hate relationship with Clint as director precisely because of that I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, and perhaps it’s partly to do with the mood I’m in at the time, but sometimes I find the generally ponderous style and slow, methodical pacing of mid-to-late period Eastwood fits the material well on occasion, while at other times I find myself wanting to tear my hair out through sheer frustration and boredom. I was worried The Bridges Of Madison County would fall into the latter category, given that the focus for this auburn-tinted melodrama is the four-day mid-1960s affair between taken-for-granted, unfulfilled housewife Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) and Nat Geo photographer/stranger-in town Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), who is in Madison County, Iowa to shoot the titular covered bridges for the magazine. (Well, there is also a framing device involving Francesca’s two children, now grown up and discovering the details of her affair in the 1990s, but that’s only moderately involving and the state of their lives ties a little too neatly into the experiences of the main characters 30 years earlier for my liking; really this is a story about two people.)

Anyway, cutting to the chase (and hopefully avoiding any accusations of being slow and ponderous myself), I needn’t have worried; this may be a straight, bittersweet romance, but it’s wonderfully played by the two stars, who effortlessly show off their charisma and their chops during a series of intimate conversations around the kitchen table at Francesca’s house (a space we initially find chaotic, but which is suddenly rendered quiet when her husband and kids take a trip to the State Fair). Streep is excellent as the tortured woman who quickly falls in love, resisting her urges partly out of respect and affection for her family, while Clint proves his range by playing an unusually soft, entirely respectful romantic lead, who is never forceful with any demands and who, for once, is a fish-out-of-water in the working class Midwest. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a real emotional button-pusher, but it’s very well done and there’s some terrific indoor and outdoor cinematography by Eastwood’s regular 80s and 90s DP Jack Green, as well as a memorable soundtrack by Lennie Niehaus. Though it’s surprising that Cahiers du Cinéma went as far as naming it the joint best film of the 1990s in a poll, I suppose it’s still worth considering the above-mentioned factors, and the excellence of Eastwood’s direction here. Here’s a brief example: he manages to wring every last bit of tension and sadness out of a key scene in which one character drives away from another, much in the same way Kelly Reichardt did in Certain Women over thirty years later, and though the rainswept nature of said scene is a little on the nose, it still had me reaching for the Kleenex. As for the pace Clint employs… well, the slowness suits The Bridges Of Madison County perfectly, allowing both the relationship and the characters’ reactions to the situation to develop in a reasonably believable fashion, and ensuring that you understand how a mere four day period can have such a long-term effect on two different lives. (****½)