Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Iowa Stubborn: The Bridges (and Voters) of Madison County

Yesterday, all eyes were on Iowa, as the famous Iowa Caucuses kicked off the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. As for me, I’ve been thinking about Iowa too. That’s because -- after seeing Jason Robert Brown’s stage musical version of The Bridges of Madison County -- I’ve finally caught up with the celebrated 1995 film. Of course it stars Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood as the Iowa housewife and the roving photographer who get caught up in a torrid four-day romance when he shows up to snap pictures of the area’s covered bridges. No, I’ve never read the sappy Robert James Waller novel that introduced this saga, and I don’t think I’m ashamed of that fact.

Waller’s novel unfolds from the perspective of the photographer, Robert Kincaid, looking back near the end of his life on a love affair he’s never forgotten. But both film and musical focus primarily on Francesca Johnson, an Italian woman who married an American G.I. at the close of World War II and has since been living a life of quiet desperation on an Iowa farm. Despite the love of her husband and teenaged children, she has never been awakened to true passion until Robert blows into town. Then the question becomes: should she upend her familiar world to follow her bliss?

In the stage version, award-winning playwright Marsha Norman (sensitive to the multiple tugs and pulls on a woman’s existence) surrounds Francesca and Robert’s love story with the doings of family, friends, and neighbors. In a nod to Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town, she sets their romance in the context of the larger community. This includes two gently bickering oldsters, a neighboring couple living close by. There’s no question in the stage version that the woman (a character named Madge who makes one very slight intrusion into the film) knows what’s going on, and tacitly gives her consent. The play also pays attention to Francesca’s good-guy husband and quibbling kids (off to win a livestock prize at the county fair while there are big doings in the farmhouse bedroom back home). A sense of who these people are gives weight to Francesca’s ultimate decision about her future.

 On screen, the affair between Francesca and Robert (told in flashback as her now-grown kids finally learn her secret) seems to take place in a sort of romantic bubble. Perhaps this was deliberate, to heighten the sense of magic isolation between the two. But aside from that one innocent intrusion by Madge, no neighbors are about. We don’t get to learn much about Francesca’s husband and children, the state fair is totally off-screen, and there’s no attempt—as there is on stage—to explain why Francesca felt the urge to leave Italy for marriage in an unknown place. Personally, I would like to have known her worlds (past and present) much better, before buying into her need for love with the proper stranger. The one element of the film that’s not in the stage play is a local woman (seen being denied service in a diner) who has clearly been ostracized for an adulterous romance. We’re eventually told that Francesca will befriend her after Robert’s departure, but not enough is made of the character and her situation to mean much.

The movie, though, does have some things going for it, like amber waves of grain, an appealing score, and – best of all – Meryl Streep. Here she’s dark-haired, olive-skinned, and a completely new person from the actress we know so well. Too bad Clint Eastwood, who produced and directed as well as starring, gave his actor-self top billing. 

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