|Unhappily ever after...|
When their mother’s dying request is that her body be cremated and the ashes thrown over a bridge in Madison County, Carol and Michael don’t understand why. The two siblings find it even harder to understand when, by going through their mother’s belongings, they find out that she had an affair with National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid. Michael is more affected than Carol, shaken by the idea that his mother could have cheated on not only her husband, but the entire family. The siblings found an explanation in their mother’s journals, through which she details the affair and explains why she requested for a cremation.
The Bridges of Madison County is a romantic drama set against the backdrop of small-town America in Iowa, taking us from one generation to the next. Directed by Clint Eastwood who also stars as Robert Kincaid alongside Meryl Streep, this is a story about love and romance, conformity and defiance of conventions, as revealed through the memoirs of Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep).
The Bridges of Madison County successfully takes us into the life of Francesca as she fights the internal battle of falling in love with a stranger while remaining strongly devoted to her family. Meryl Streep gives a spectacular performance as the small-town housewife and mother from Italy, self-conscious and quirky with an inner strength that many a woman can aspire to. We are treated to silent moments with Francesca - away from the other characters, where we can build a friendship with this woman. When she first meets Robert, for example, and he mentions a particular smell in the Iowa air that comes from the soil in that part of the USA, Francesca discreetly takes a sniff at herself – as many people would be tempted to do – to confirm that she wasn’t the source of said smell. The story is told from her point of view, and we walk with her as she slowly (or in fact, very quickly) falls in love with the photographer.
Francesca’s fascination with Kincaid is relatable, and although it is presented as a modest ‘small-scale’ romance, it is in fact an adventurous journey with a natural glamour and excitement that makes it captivating and moving. Here is a housewife with long forgotten dreams, bound by mere chance to an erratic traveller who got off the plane in a small town in Italy where he knew no-one, simply because it looked pretty. Albeit the brevity of their union, Francesca and Robert present a compelling human connection that sways the expectations of not only this woman’s children, but the conservative viewer too. This is a somewhat forbidden and secret relationship; to protect Francesca’s reputation and her family’s peace, they must avoid the judgmental eyes and eager-to-speak tongues of the other residents of Madison County.
This is a refreshing love story with a grounded reality and a somber ending that ignores the traditional ‘happily ever after’ cliché, making it even more relevant to real life. It addresses the issue of infidelity in an enthralling way, successfully giving the cheating spouse a human face. Although she was deeply in love with Robert, Francesca hid the affair from her family and community and remained in her devout position, sacrificing her own desires for those she loved. This was appreciated by her family, and can be appreciated by viewers too as a great sacrifice. To give up one’s own desires for those that one loves is indeed many people's story, and The Bridges of Madison County articulates such tendency convincingly. In contrast however, the film also supports the position that one should seek their own happiness in this world. Francesca’s last words to her children urge them to do what they can to be happy, and present her as a woman laden with an unfulfilled life even though she is confident about her decision to part with Robert.
Whether one chooses to hold on to Francesca’s last words or to the greater good she did for her family by sacrificing her own happiness, the story of Robert and Francesca is an impactful one. After reading her journals, Francesca’s children are inspired to take control of their own relationships, and anyone that walked this journey with them feels compelled to do the same. It is a story about the emotional bonds of our humanity, and an interesting walk with Francesca and Robert on the Bridges of Madison County.