Video Note:
Anna’s Choice
15 June 2018

After yesterday’s electric surprise, I was good for nothing but watching movies. I was midway into the fourth when Kathleen came home, late, from a day of drafting.

My first choice was The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which I wasn’t even sure I had. I didn’t like it much when it came out, just as I hadn’t quite liked the book. Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep are superb actors, but although they’re always interesting, I don’t always like them. That’s to say that, if I were near one of the characters that they play, I would walk away. I don’t mean this personally. Long ago, at a performance of a play called Amy’s View (which I wanted to see not for Judi Dench but for Samantha Bond), Streep and a friend sat almost directly behind us, and they fairly bubbled with amiability.

Adapting John Fowles’s novel for the screen, Harold Pinter interposes a sequence of scenes purporting to show the actors “offscreen.” Irons and Streep, playing Charles and Sarah in the original story, which is set in the high noon of Victorian propriety, become Mike and Anna, the contemporary movie stars who are not only impersonating them, but tossing in their own semi-surreptitious love affair. And while the period tale is seen and felt from Charles’s point of view, that of an independent gentleman who has never before been disturbed by his emotions, we see the modern-day romance through Anna’s rather more experienced eyes. The question for both sets of lovers is whether to throw over everything for love. 

Anna decides not to, and this is presented in lieu of the novel’s alternate, “unhappy” ending. It is very hard for me to see it that way now. The revealing moment occurs at Mike’s comfortable home in London, where members of the cast have gathered for a luncheon party. At one point, Anna finds herself on the veranda with Sonia, Mike’s wife (played by Penelope Wilton). Sonia obviously suspects that something is going on between her husband and Anna, but she seems resigned to it, at least as long as the suspicion is not confirmed. Anna says, “I envy you this.” When Sonia expresses surprise, Anna falls back on an obvious prevarication: “This garden.” Anna understands that she can never have a comfortable life with Mike; they are, after all, in the middle of demonstrating their shared taste for infidelity. The best way to preserve what she has with Mike, Anna sees, is to break it off. 

I remember thinking at the time, when the movie came out, that it was mean of Anna to run off at the end. I see now that, had Mike been the one to make the same decision, I would have seen him as responsible. (The glimpse that we’re given of Anna’s life is not particularly enviable. The man in her life seems devoted to his calculator.) My change of heart is undoubtedly partly attributable to age: I don’t regard romantic love as love at all, but only as a delighted confusion. But it’s also the case that I put more stock in the wisdom of women. Men may make things happen, but it’s women who keep things going. 

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