Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Annie Corley, Victor Slezak

Iowa, 1965. Francesca (Meryl Streep) waves her family off for a four day trip to the Illinois State Fair. In their absence she gives directions to Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), a photographer from National Geographic magazine who is looking for the local covered bridges. Over their four days of freedom they commence an affair and start to fall in love. At the end of the four days they are faced with a decision: do they leave together and try to build something or do they go their separate ways?

It is a surprise that Iowa could ever hold these two individuals. Neither have the small town views prevalent in this pastoral corner of America. Robert has travelled the world with National Geographic, and Francesca was born in Bari, Italy. Even before she married her husband Richard (Jim Haynie) and moved to an entire different continent she had shown a willingness to explore (she met him in Naples). Robert has an enquiring mind, a yearning to travel and an aversion to settling down. He can make his own rules, something that Francesca finds hard to understand: witness her uncomprehending repeats of his phrase that he “got off the train” to spend some days in Bari, just because he liked the look of it. She has that wider world-view, but she cannot make her own rules. She is tied to her husband and her children. Choosing her own destiny and leaving with Robert, as she wants, means closing the door on twenty years of her life. And as she says, she “can’t make an entire life disappear to start a new one”. She may not feel passionately for her husband (her first description of him is that he is “clean”), but she feels that he is a good man, and at the end of the film he reveals that he loves her. But she is, of course, close to her children, no matter how priggish their grown-up selves seem to be. In the end she cherishes the love that they have shared in those brief four days, and decides to stay for fear that should she leave with him that love would die. She would, obviously, love Robert until the day she dies, but this is a solitary candle burning bright in the middle of the Iowa farmland. Knowing that she had that would be the only way to make her marriage survive. Yet there is still one tension-filled moment when she sees him again, and her hand tightens on the door handle of her husband’s truck as they stop at the traffic lights, where it seems that she is about to leap into his arms again.

In comparison Robert has always been footloose and fancy free. Francesca is the first time in his life that he can feel himself wanting to make that leap into commitment. “This kind of certainty”¸ he says, “comes but once in a lifetime”. She jokes that he has women willing to indulge in guilt-free affairs all across the world, but in a way that is what she becomes. It may be more than an affair, but they refuse to feel guilty about it. And he too keeps his candle burning. And her words inspire him to follow his dreams and publish his photographs as art. And what is the title of his book? ‘Four Days’ – and it is dedicated to ‘F’. For almost thirty years they conduct this chaste affair, despite never seeing each other again.

The story is framed as a flashback. Upon Francesca’s death her grown-up children Michael (Victor Slezak) and Carolyn (Annie Corley) come back to Madison County to empty her house. Clues lead them to her journal, where she relates this story to them. At first they are horrified to realise that their mother had ever acted this way but in time they come to respect her decisions and feel inspired by her passion. The film ends with her ashes being scattered off the Roseman Bridge, which she had visited with Robert, and from where his own ashes had been scattered a decade earlier. I have to say that the flashbacks were much less diverting than those in Fried Green Tomatoes… - though of course it is the Streep-Eastwood romance that people have paid money to see rather than the framing device. I also found it a bit distracting how Francesca’s voiceover would suddenly appear, and then vanish for the next twenty minutes. I suppose it is needed though, to show how Francesca and Robert’s love stayed true until death.

"Like a bridge over troubled waters I will lay me down..."

And as for the leads… well, it’s a love story about people who aren’t physically-perfect twenty-somethings. This is a romance between those who are in the latter half of their life. Eastwood can still pull off walking around topless, even if he has wispy white professor-style hair. And it shows that just because you are edging into middle age it does not mean that you no longer have passions and desires.

What have I learnt about Iowa?
All learnings are about Iowa in the ‘60s. Francesca describes small-town communities to a tee when she talks about the reaction to Lucy Redfield’s affair; Robert later sees this himself when he witnesses Lucy being ostracised in the café. There is a gossip network, and possibly a vicious one; this makes Robert almost reconsider acting upon his attraction to Francesca. The other side of the community is one of support. Madge (Debra Monk) drops by to keep Francesca company with cake; Francesca later replicates this act with Lucy.

The countryside is very rural. Roads are not named, and directions are given with reference to individual families’ farms. For any exciting shopping (such as Francesca’s new dress) you have to go into Des Moines. There is also a colour divide between blacks and whites. This is not presented as anything malicious, just an opportunity for Robert and Francesca to go out to a black roadhouse (‘The Blue Note Lounge’) where they would be assured that no one who knew her would see.

And then there are the bridges of Madison County. This county, south-west of Des Moines, is so noted for its collection of covered wooden bridges that National Geographic would even send a photographer out to capture them and turn it into a front cover article.

Can we go there?
The success of the film – and of the original source novel by Robert James Waller – have turned Madison County’s covered bridges into tourist attractions. There were once nineteen in total, but now only six remain: Cedar Bridge (itself rebuilt in 2004 after being destroyed by an arsonist), Cutler-Donahoe Bridge, Hogback Covered Bridge, Imes Bridge, and the two featured in the movie, Holliwell Bridge and Roseman Bridge, both of which cross the Middle River. All six date from the 1870s and 1880s and are wooden plank structures. In the film they seem slightly tattered with pigeons cooing in their eaves. They have been renovated since then. Roseman is the bridge that Robert got lost looking for; it is where Francesca left the note inviting him to dinner, and where their ashes were scattered. The Chamber of Commerce have helpfully produced a map detailing locations around the county.

Winterset, the largest town in Madison County, is also the nearest town to the Johnson farm in the film. It is located about thirty miles southwest of Des Moines. Town scenes were shot around Courthouse Square. The café, where Robert offered Lucy a stool, is really the North Side Café on the square. It has been in existence since 1876, reason enough for a refreshment stop. Robert Waller wrote portions of his novel in a booth here. The Blue Note, the black roadhouse, actually had its interior scenes shot at the Pheasant Run Pub & Grill, which is also located on the square. (The building used for the exterior is actually a tractor garage on the Madison County Fairgrounds just outside town). The City Park, just south-east of the centre, holds the arched stone bridge where Robert and Francesca go for their romantic picnic (the Park) also holds the Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge). Finally, just south-west of town in the Pammel State Park; Michael and Carolyn sit out by the Middle River Ford here with their bottle of Jack to read their mother’s journals. The Johnson farm was actually an abandoned farmhouse in the north-east of the county that was renovated specifically for the film. However, it has been closed since it was damaged by arson in 2003, just one year after the Cedar Covered Bridge was itself destroyed. I’m guessing that someone locally really didn’t live the book and the film!

While in the vicinity of Winterset, movie buffs might want to visit one further location. The town was the birthplace of the legendary John Wayne. The four-room house in Winterset where he was born is open to the public as the John Wayne Birthplace. Among other memorabilia you can even see the eyepatch he wore as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit!).

Overall Rating: 3/5

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