The opening minutes of The Bridges of Madison County, in which two adult siblings react to the reading of their mother's will, are terrible. It is hard to believe that Clint Eastwood directed these dreadfully delivered moments. The majority of the film, at least the parts with Meryl Streep and Eastwood on screen, is better, but this adaptation of Robert James Waller's sentimental bestseller is hamstrung by its source. Those adverse to melodrama need not apply, but the film is an interesting signpost for Eastwood, who has largely avoided making this type of drama in his sixty-year career. Streep plays a restless Iowa matriarch who engages in an unexpected, four-day affair with Eastwood's National Geographic photographer. Streep is fantastic, Eastwood is adequate, and the film makes a valiant effort to turn smoldering glances into high drama. This plodding romance is a favorite of many, but I don't count myself among that crew.
Italian-born Francesca Johnson (Streep) bids her husband and kids farewell and looks forward to a weekend alone while her family enjoys the Illinois State Fair. No sooner does the dust settle in her driveway than Eastwood's Robert Kincaid arrives looking for the nearby Roseman Covered Bridge. Instead of providing simple directions, Francesca offers to accompany Robert on his photo shoot. There's an immediate spark between the two, but only Francesca is married. A dinner follows, and Francesca ends up spending most of her alone time in Robert's arms. This mid '60s action is bookended by scenes of Francesca's children (Victor Slezak and Annie Corley) reacting to her death and discovering their mother's affair. Despite the shifts in time, the narrative struggles to fill the film's 135-minute running time.
Your appreciation of The Bridges of Madison County and Waller's novel likely depends on whether or not you enjoy this flavor of romantic melodrama. It is not my cup of tea, but I can appreciate the film's themes of settling and unrequited longing. As the Stones say, "You can't always get what you want." Francesca knows that, and there's a reason why her kids only learn of Robert after their mom's death. One of the best scenes shows Robert quietly processing the vitriol flung upon a poor woman at a local diner because she had an affair. Should the townsfolk learn of Francesca's little indiscretion, there will be no more church socials and PTA meetings for her. The pair spends most of their time talking at Francesca's dining room table - Unfaithful this is not - and each realizes they are passively discontent with their lives.
The aforementioned terrible bookend scenes are supposed to illustrate the impact of Francesca's experience on the lives of her children, both of whom are stuck in unhappy marriages, but they are so poorly constructed as to distract from the overall effect. Not only are the acting and dialogue terrible, but a late-night boozing session between brother and sister has a creepily incestuous vibe. That was surely not intended, but I suspect some Warner Brothers suits weren't happy when they first compared the caliber of these scenes to the Streep/Eastwood work. At least Corley's character gets a few digs at her holier-than-thou brother, which are good for a chuckle when the film is at its worst.
Eastwood's direction is understated, and it is interesting to see Dirty Harry acting and shooting such sentimental material. I think Eastwood is too old for the role, and his chemistry with Streep is not great. She makes due and acts up a storm, and at least gives the movie the emotional depth it is otherwise missing. Eastwood plays with light and shadow, and the film is handsomely shot both inside and out of the Johnson farmhouse. The pace is labored, but many will enjoy lingering in the moment. I was mainly ready to leave Iowa and return to my own dining room table.
The Blu-ray's 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is pretty good, though certainly not from a meticulously restored source. Film grain is left intact, thankfully, and I noticed no signs of digital manipulation. Jack N. Green's cinematography is purposely soft, but the transfer replicates this intended look without robbing the image of detail. There is plenty of texture and fine-object detail to be found, particularly in Francesca's kitchen and on the covered bridge. Black levels are decent, though I noticed a bit of black crush in darker scenes. Color saturation is pushed a bit too far at times, and I spotted some minor speckles and print damage.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is front loaded and dialogue heavy, but it is perfectly adequate for the material. Clarity is excellent, and no hiss or distortion distracts from the proceedings. There are some minor ambient effects that track to the surrounds, and Lennie Niehaus' score is appropriately weighty. French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes are included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
The extras are ported over from the previous DVD and include a Commentary with Editor Joel Cox and Director of Photography Jack N. Green, which is informative but not a substitute for an Eastwood track. An Old-Fashioned Love Story: Making The Bridges of Madison County (29:36/SD) is a decent retrospective with participation from Eastwood, Streep, producer Kathleen Kennedy, Cox, and Green, among others. You also get the "Doe Eyes" Music Video (4:05/SD) and a Theatrical Trailer (1:23/SD).
An unusual choice for Clint Eastwood to direct, The Bridges of Madison County is a slow, sentimental retelling of Robert James Waller's novel, in which a married woman has a mid-life affair with a National Geographic photographer. The film ruminates on the disappointment of settling, but a threadbare story and some awkward bookend scenes lessen the overall effect. Fans - and there are many - can pick up this Blu-ray with confidence. My recommendation for everyone else? Rent It.