Romantic `Bridges' -- Eastwood's Gentle Picture Transcends The Book

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XXX 1/2 "The Bridges of Madison County," with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Directed by Eastwood, from a script by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Robert James Waller. Broadway Market, Chalet, Crossroads, Everett 9, Factoria, Gateway, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Guild 45th, Issaquah 9, Kent, Kirkland Parkplace, Mountlake 9, Oak Tree, Parkway Plaza, Puyallup. `PG-13" - Parental guidance suggested; mature themes, brief profanity. ----------------------------------------------------------------- If I were pressed to make the difficult choice, I'd have to say that my favorite scene in Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" is the one in which Eastwood's character, William Munny, offers quiet words of comfort to the prostitute whose disfigurement by a brutal customer had set the film's plot in motion.

With facial scars that cut deeply into her fragile self-esteem, the prostitute offers Munny "a free one," and instantly assumes that his rejection is due to her imperfect appearance. In fact, Munny is merely honoring the memory of his dead wife, and he sincerely appreciates the inner beauty of a sensitive woman who has been forced by circumstance to sell her body to strangers.

It's a short, sweet, perfectly understated scene, offering all the proof anyone needs to know that Eastwood was the right choice to direct "The Bridges of Madison County." After a quick (and all too easy) reading of Robert James Waller's 9 million-copy bestseller - about a passionate three-day affair between 52-year-old roving photographer Robert Kincaid and 45-year-old Iowa farm wife Francesca Johnson - I think it's safe to say the movie's better.

With Eastwood as Kincaid and Meryl Streep as Francesca, this carefully observant love story turns Waller's pop-lit passion into screen art, as if Eastwood had stretched that flawless scene in "Unforgiven" into 135 minutes that encompass lifetimes of unforgettable emotion.

Focuses on Streep's character

Streep is reported to have called Waller's book "a crime against literature." Replacing director Bruce Beresford due to creative differences, Eastwood has taken a more tolerant approach, discreetly emphasizing the emotional complexity underlying Waller's florid prose. And by shifting focus to the Italian-born Francesca, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese ("The Fisher King") has given Streep ample reason to accept the role of a woman who, as Kincaid observes, is "anything but simple."

The result is priceless chemistry between consummate actors who have gracefully tuned themselves to the same creative wavelength. Eastwood encouraged improvisation, and that wise decision breathes vivid life into LaGravenese's prudently loyal adaptation, most of which is confined to a farmhouse kitchen and the desire of two people brought together by resonant destiny.

It's the fall of 1965, and Kincaid is in Madison County, Iowa, to photograph its rustic covered bridges for National Geographic. He'll be around for four days or so - the same amount of time that Francesca's husband of 15 years is away, attending the Illinois State Fair with their two children.

That's all you need to know. This film should be discovered, not described.

Doesn't judge characters

"We are the choices we've made," says Kincaid in one scene, and his words echo throughout the film. Whether she stays with her husband or leaves with Kincaid, Francesca's decision - as conveyed by Streep's witty, thoughtful portrayal - transcends the unspoken issue of adultery.

With cinematographer Jack Green, editor Joel Cox and composer Lennie Niehaus as his gifted collaborators, Eastwood is far too intelligent to pass judgment on these characters. Instead, he places compelling priority on the certainty of this love story, enhancing its passion with gentle humor, emotional suspense and a smooth selection of romantic jazz standards.

The film's present-day framing device is at times a superfluous distraction, revealing how the discovery of Francesca's affair affects the lives of her now-grown children. But even these scenes have dramatic purpose, proving that some loves are eternal even if they don't last forever.