Brief encounter of the third kind

Clint Eastwood's latest film shows you can be high-minded and satisfy your carnal desires - flies and all. By Adam Mars-Jones
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`The Bridges of Madison County' is `Brief Encounter' for the Nineties. Discuss.

T he comparison may seem wilful, considering that the romantic couple in the new film make full carnal contact. Theirs is a brief encounter of the third kind. But anyone who has seen the Streep-De Niro vehicle Falling In Love, which tried to reproduce Brief Encounter's situation in a contemporary setting complete with abstinence, knows there's only so much rapt gazing at someone else's spouse, wishing things were otherwise, that a modern audience can take. The conflict in The Bridges of Madison County is still between a life spent fulfilling desires and one spent fulfilling obligations, but high-mindedness no longer rules out certain concessions to the body.

The main story is set in 1965, a canny choice of date. In 1960, personal fulfilment in America could still be presented as a side effect of responsible life choices; by 1970, it was an over-riding cultural imperative. In 1965, things could still go either way, particularly in rural Iowa, the heartland, even if Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) is Italian by birth, and therefore by definition susceptible to passion. Hers is a palate raised on garlic, making do with a marriage like a buttermilk pancake.

While her husband and children are away for four days at a state fair, she meets Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), a photographer commissioned by National Geographic to portray the distinctive covered bridges of the area. Left in charge of the family farm, Francesca seems to have remarkably little work to do, once passion strikes. Oh, she sweeps a bit, digs the garden and does a little tractor driving, but that's about it. She doesn't even seem to feed the dog, who in any case turns up only very occasionally, and keeps tactfully away when there's romance in the air. It's as if the dog's development is ahead of the mistress's, in terms of reconciling fidelity with independence of mind. No matter. This isn't vulgar realism. It isn't even The Archers.

Francesca's love object Robert is a walking handbook of tough tenderness. He is masculine, but not above wearing sandals. He can laugh at himself. He's domestically useful, willing to help to cook or clear up, and senses Francesca's grief over the teaching career her husband prevailed on her to give up. He picks her a bunch of wild flowers without self-consciousness, and reads poetry without going unduly gooey over it ("Good stuff, Yeats, huh?").

Eastwood as director is careful to establish a mood by economical means before he pulls out all the stops of manipulation. So the first casual touch between Robert and Francesca, and even the first approach to a caress, go unmarked by ersatz tension or lunges of mood music. Only later does a Love Theme start to repeat itself on the soundtrack, and every song on the radio seems to speak directly to the lovers' hearts: "Now I'm alone with you", "Once in every life, someone comes along... " "For all we know, we may never be together... ").

Eastwood's casting of himself as the wish-fulfilment hero of Robert James Waller's novel just about comes off, though Harrison Ford would certainly have done a better job. At one point Kincaid is implicitly crying, but sobs don't come easily to the Eastwood throat, nor tears to those crinkled eyes, and the emotion remains unexpressed. If The Bridges of Madison County contained any element of critique of romanticism - of the way we fetishise the choices we haven't made - then it would be brave that Eastwood shows himself at a crucial juncture standing bedraggled in the rain, waiting for Francesca to choose him over her husband, who may be dull but is at least dry. Eastwood drenched is a figure of pathos, not romantic endurance, and as director he should have eased off on those sprinklers.

Meryl Streep doesn't put a foot wrong as Francesca (there's a nice early moment when she steps briskly up on to her porch, and we see that Robert prefers her matter of factness to grace) but then putting a foot wrong has never been her style. She gives Francesca a whole range of restless mannerisms, tapping her chin, pressing her hands against her face, playing with stray wisps of hair, but it's not that the performance is mannered. It's scrupulously layered. It's just that once or twice you think that what's inside Streep's head isn't "I don't know what to do with my hands" or even "I am a woman who doesn't know what to do with her hands" but "My character is a woman who doesn't know what to do with her hands". Streep's controlling intelligence would be even more impressive if she could make it invisible.

As her involvement with Robert grows, Francesca starts to knot her blouse at naval level and wear her hair down (just once in my life I'd like to see a film where passion made a woman put her hair up). Robert has always gone in for crackerbarrell philosophy of a prophetic New Age sort. "Change is one thing you can count on." "I try to embrace the mystery." "It's not that I don't need anyone, I need everyone." Now the bullshit quotient of the film escalates sharply, and Francesca starts responding in kind ("We are the choices we have made, Robert").

Even at its most over-heated, the film has a way of cutting its fantasy with something like realism. This may be the first romantic movie ever where flies land on the lovers' bodies from time to time, and where the heroine, sensually opening her night-gown to the cool night breeze, is rewarded for her passionate nature with mosquito bites. Nevertheless, the film pushes towards a contrived conclusion, even if it is a Zen sort of conclusion, in which audiences can see either passion or fidelity vindicated, according to taste.

Finding their mother's papers after her death, Francesca's son and daughter re-evaluate their lives in the light of new knowledge. The one without children has the courage to break free, the one with children resolves to make a go of the marriage. Everyone expresses their true nature, and no innocent party is hurt.

In Brief Encounter there was no bridge between a life of duty and a life of personal fulfilment. In The Bridges of Madison County, the two are reconciled by sleight of hand. After her virtuous choice, Francesca comes to realise that the love you give up is the only one you truly possess. "Love's mystery is pure and absolute." In her life it was adultery that made marriage last. There is a bridge between duty and pleasure, after all, and it is built of sophistry and psychobabble.

n On release from Friday