The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981): Longing, Grief and Fate Through Postmodernity

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981): Longing, Grief and Fate Through Postmodernity

A woman staring out to the sea every day, waiting for a man that won’t return

Based on John Fowles’ 1969 novel of the same name, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is directed by Karel Reisz and adapted by one of the most celebrated playwrights and the Nobel Prize-winning Harold Pinter.

With five Oscar nominations, the film is a beautiful reconciliation between the past and the future, where the choice one makes determines their allotted grief and fortune in life. 


Two parallel episodes take place in the English coastal village of Lyme Regis. The film, which is set in both the 19th and 20th centuries, weaves together the lives of its characters through time.

In the 19th century, young and newlywed Charles Smithson meets Sarah Woodruff, also known as the mysterious "French Lieutenant's Woman." The allegation that Sarah had an affair with a French navy officer has damaged her image. Charles is drawn to Sarah against the opinions of others, and their illicit connection defies the social mores of the time.

In the 20th century, we follow the lives of performers Mike and Anna as they work on a historical drama about the romance of Charles and Sarah. Off-screen, Mike and Anna manage their own complicated relationship while playing these characters. 

At first, the juxtaposition between their contemporary lives and their historical roles is perplexing, but it quickly becomes the finest aspect of the movie.

The love tales of the individuals are entwined not just in their decisions and tribulations but also in the very fabric of time.


Although Fowles’ novel is a better example of postmodern thought and expression, the liberties that Pinter took with adapting the story didn’t substitute its fundamental themes.

The French Lieutenant's Woman is more than just a love story; it also explores the human condition. It examines the complexities of love, freedom, and the terrible toll of the status quo on the happiness of those who make different choices. 

It is a story about grief and longing, and the choices one makes to overcome it. In doing so, the film also prompts us to consider these ideas – Does free will exist? Or are we passive subjects of fate?

Two Endings

The pairing of a love tale from the 19th century with a movie made in the 20th century creates a dialogue between the two periods, stressing the variety of perceptions and viewpoints. The film's dual narrative structure, which mimics the fractured aspect of human existence, is in line with postmodern ideas.

In the book, there are multiple endings, not just two.


A film within a film. Pinter’s use of characters from the 20th century adds a layer of metafiction in which the characters play other roles while juggling their own moral concerns.

The borders between fiction and reality are questioned by this self-reflexive technique, which forces us to wonder how narratives are created.


The conflicting reports of Sarah Woodruff's conduct and her unclear identity reflect the postmodern tendency to be sceptical of great narratives and historical facts.

Like the postmodern dismantling of historical tenets, she stands for a rebellion against society's standards – for example, the idea of the French Lieutenant's 'whore' having a love affair with someone else's fiancé.

A Critique of Power Structures

Charles and Sarah's relationship reflects the postmodern mistrust of inflexible institutions as it challenges the rigid rules and expectations of 19th-century society.

A similar challenge to the authority of the director and the screenplay is made by characters from the 20th century, Mike and Anna, who represent the postmodern rejection of singular authorship.


Intertextual allusions and cultural collages, another trademark of postmodernism, are delicately included throughout the movie. Visual aesthetics echo the Victorian age, while the performers from the 20th century's contemporary sensibilities create a play of temporalities. 

All time is connected and overlaps. No history stands alone. Charles and Sarah and Mike and Ana are all related through their unrelatedness.

These interlocking cultural aspects call into question the continuity of historical eras and emphasise the postmodern notion that history is composed of various influences and sources.