Bridges of Madison County, The (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Cast against type, Clint Eastwood plays Robert Kincaid, the male protagonist in the motion picture adaptation of Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County. Kincaid is a sensitive loner, and while the actor is certainly known for his portrayal of independently-minded individuals, one would be hard pressed to describe Dirty Harry as a model of sensitivity. Nevertheless, this is not the first time Eastwood (who directs, as well as stars) has successfully stretched his range.

As good as Eastwood is, however, it's his co-star, Meryl Streep, who really shines. After taking a break from drama with the popcorn-munching adventure thriller The River Wild, she returns to the kind of role that made her famous, and gives perhaps her best performance since Sophie's Choice. Streep is Francesca Johnson, a lonely housewife whose eyes and heart are opened to true love when Robert arrives in Iowa to take pictures of Madison County's covered bridges. Francesca's husband and two children are away for four days at the Illinois State Fair, leaving her home alone when Robert stops for directions to the Roseman Bridge. Since the roads are unmarked, she guides him there in person, and the pair end up spending the rest of the day -- into the evening -- together. They start as friends with an endless capacity for conversation, but less than 24 hours later, they are in love.

The Bridges of Madison County is a beautiful film, not only in the way it was photographed, but for the manner through which the characters are revealed to us. Eastwood will not be hurried, choosing a relaxed pace for the unfolding of this romance. There's a lot of dialogue -- some mundane and some touching on the quintessential aspects of the human experience. The Bridges of Madison County presents a richly-textured emotional tapestry. It's the kind of movie you know is going to be special before much of the running time has elapsed.

In the book, Francesca is not an especially strong character -- things happen around her and she's swept up in the current. Richard LaGravenese's screenplay rectifies this, creating a dynamic personality for Streep to work with. In fact, the actress commented that she was "blind to the book's power" but thought the script was "beautifully crafted." There aren't many intelligent motion picture romances. Besides The Bridges of Madison County, the only other one (thus far) this year is Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. And, as in that film, there's a profound sense of inevitability permeating the atmosphere, a realization that this magical time must come to an end -- and soon. In The Bridges of Madison County, we know the conclusion before we learn the beginning (the story is presented through flashbacks), and this lends an air of poignancy to the proceedings.

It's easy to believe that Francesca and Robert's love is deep and special, but perhaps the real test of the film's power is whether the statements, situations, and characters transcend the screen to leave a lasting impression. Not many pictures are created with the necessary skill to challenge our perceptions and beliefs, but The Bridges of Madison County is a rare exception.

Bridges of Madison County, The (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1996-06-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1