The Bridges of Madison County,” the surprise hit of summer 1995, centers on a particular concept of adulterous romance that is very apropos of the neoconservative epoch. While many contemporary married women indeed may take comfort in the film’s message (that one can have a secret love, but then must go back to the normalcy and maturity of married life), its implications are perhaps something less than a comfort as viewers see them as part of a larger theme about gender equality and human liberation.
The complexity of the story’s theme requires not just a good director but also good actors, actors who can link or bridge the character’s character to the audience and live through the film’s reality for at least two hours. But before we discuss how Meryl Streep in particular made us connect with the film and empathize with her character, let us first walk around the story of Bridges of Madison County.
The story explores the character of Francesca, an Italian woman who somehow ended up as a farm housewife in Iowa. Like most of us, she dreamt of a more exotic life than ‘shuckin’ the corn and ‘sloppin’ the ‘hawgs’, but sometimes life just turns out the way it does. Humans follow where life leads them for a while, and before we realize it, decades have passed. This is so true with Francesca.
Her path initially was destined, straight and predictable until an unexpected fork in the road causes her to question everything she had come to expect from life. While her husband and children are away at the Iowa state fair in the summer of 1965, Robert Kincaid happens upon the Johnson farm and asks Francesca for directions to Rosamunde Bridge. He explains that he is on assignment from National Geographic magazine to photograph the bridges of Madison County. She agrees to show him to the bridges and thus begins the bittersweet and all-too-brief romance of her life.
Through the pain of separation from her secret love and the stark isolation she feels as the details of her life consume her, she writes down the story of this four-day love affair in a 3-volume diary. The diary is found by her children among her possessions and alongside Robert Kincaid’s possessions after Francesca is dead. The message they take from the diaries is one of hope that they will do what is necessary to find happiness in their lives — whatever is necessary. After learning that Robert Kincaid’s cremated remains were scattered off Rosamunde Bridge and that their mother requested a similar disposition for her own ashes, the children must decide whether to honor their mother’s final wishes or bury her alongside their father as the family had planned. Adapted from the novel by Robert Waller, this is the story of love that happens just once in a lifetime — if you’re lucky.
The central theme is that there are deep universal feelings inside of all of us which we train ourselves to ignore in the execution of everyday life. Inside every adult is an idealistic youth who planned a completely different life. But our dreams never go away, requiring only the right stimulus to reappear.
As Waller implied in his novel, sometimes the old dreams are the best dreams. They’re gone now, but it leaves a trace bound to last forever The parallel is drawn quite interestingly when Kinkaid explains that he works for the “National Geographic” magazine rather than acting as an artist because no one is interested in his work as art. Both he and Francesca have settled into a life that isn’t what they hoped it would be. What is wonderful about this plot point is that both are still successful in their lives and relatively happy. Neither one is miserable or particularly hurt by their experiences and yet, under all the layers of their existences lies a yearning for something more, a need to live out unfulfilled dreams and be glad to have dreamt them.
The two embark upon a four day romance that is realistic and touching. Streep’s’ Francesca is highly aroused by the photographer and yet she is also aware of the “improper” nature of her feelings. Coming from what was probably a more liberal background (European, i.e. Italian), she has acclimated herself to the ways of rural Iowa life. To remind us of the narrow nature of the mores of the time, a tertiary character is shown to be the town’s gossip (while Kinkaid is visiting) because her extramarital affair has recently been discovered.
What follows in Waller’s story-in-the-novel is his description of the actual affair that takes place between Robert and Francesca while her family is out of town, along with Robert’s “proposal” that Francesca leave behind her unfulfilling life in Iowa and run away with him to places far and wide, a proposal that is entertained but ultimately turned down by the heroine. Instead, Francesca places duty and fidelity in front of passion and romance, choosing to live out the remainder of her days on the farm outside of Winterset, Iowa.
During one day in August for every year thereafter, however, she would gather props and remembrances and pay ceremonial homage to her romantic interlude by staging a solitary fantasy ritual recalling the original seduction. Over the course of those two and one-half
decades, Mrs. Johnson attempted to locate Kincaid only once, and then unsuccessfully, after the passing of her husband.
Two final points are in order about Waller’s telling of the story-within-the-novel. The first is that, notwithstanding the brevity of the actual affair of Robert and Francesca, Waller leaves little doubt that theirs was much more than a fleeting romance or momentary concession to impulse. As Robert said upon learning that Francesca must stay with her family, “In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once.”
(By this point in the story, such utterances are entirely in character for Mr. Kincaid, whose mystical mix of New Age sensitivity and Marlboro Man machismo Waller gives ample amplification relative to the largely ill-defined character of the heroine. “I am the highway and the peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea,” Waller has Robert whispering into Francesca’s ear.) The last point worthy of underscoring here is the framing device used by Waller in telling the story.
Waller’s reconstruction of the romance is portrayed as a truthful re-creation that he, as the teller, was able to piece together from a letter Francesca left for her children, recounting the affair that they read only after her death.
Remarkably, and yet apparently of great importance in establishing the story’s credibility among readers, Waller agrees to tell the story of Robert and Francesca only in response to an invitation from the late Francesca’s children.(3)
Meryl Streep in the film successfully expressed Francesca’s struggle, happiness and failure in the film In the said film, Streep’s acting is effortless. We can credit her previous acting roles for her showcase of talent in the film because she has been in several drama movies before she did “Bridges of Madison County.”
Moreover, Streep has won an Oscar award in a drama film Kramer vs. Kramer. In this film, she is a mother who left her family because of discontent which is also real because males today are much more concern with their careers than with their family. This is also quite true in the movie Bridges of Madison County because in the film it is implied that she is too a little discontented with her routinary life as a wife and mother. If she had been contented and happy, she would have ignored Robert Kincaid. These questions and what ifs are clear indicators that Streep made us feel Francesca. Made us feel that she is a human subject to limitations.
In addition, Streep was already forty-six years old when she did the film. As woman, as mother and as a wife, she has rich experiences in life which contribute in her acting. It was easy for her to internalize and give justice to her character because she has been through several experiences not only in her career as an actress but also as a woman in general.
There is more to the brilliance in her acting in the said film, according to Streep in an interview on Entertainment Weekly Magazine (2000)
“I had a picture of who this was – I knew it was an Italian war bride, and I had grown up down the street from one. Her husband was a tall, blond man, and she barely spoke any English. Over the years she learned – she was a very bright, interesting woman – but there was always something exotic about her. Anyway, the book had this woman in jeans and braless. It was just hard for me to understand her. I had a pretty vivid picture of her, and I didn’t want to complicate it (laughs) with the author’s actual intent. I honestly didn’t finish the book. I started it and then thought, I’ll wait for the screenplay. The screenplay had a woman in it. “Clint called me and said ‘Just read the script. I want you to push past whatever you think you know about the book’. Meryl Streep, More Magazine, December 2002
Based from the interview we can say that her performance is significantly affected by the idea that she read the book which made her understand the character thoroughly in the novelist’s perspective and that Eastwood (the director) made sure that the script was well written.
And lastly, it is always Streep’s passion to act and always it is her goal to deliver her character to the audience in the most realistic possible way.