Lyme Regis, Dorset, 1867: Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons), a Victorian gentleman recently engaged to the daughter of a wealthy businessman, is fascinated by the lonely figure of a woman at the end of the sea wall.
Haunted by this image, he discovers that she is Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep), a governess abandoned by her French lover and spurned by the locals.
They begin a passionate affair that dramatically alters their lives.
A second story (told in parallel) follows the relationship between the two film actors portraying the Victorian couple. The historic tale is often interrupted by the antics of the modern duo, which seem prosaic by comparison.
Director Karel Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter here successfully take on the near-impossible filming of John Fowles’s complex novel.
Irons and Streep feature in the dual roles. Streep’s impressive technical skills are on display as she transforms herself, complete with English accent, into the raven-haired pre-Raphaelite beauty of the title, the governess in Victorian England stranded between geologist Jeremy Irons and the memory of her vanished French officer lover.
It’s a stunning visual experience, meaning it’s great to watch though you may not care in the end what happens to any of the characters.