October 05, 1981 12:00 PM

Already all but canonized on the basis of five performances in films that merely hinted at her possibilities, Meryl Streep finally gets her first picture-carrying role. As the title character in John Fowles’ fluid 1969 novel, a 20th-century look at Victoriana shot through with Freud and feminism, Streep unleashes everything she’s got. Intuitive, rapt, real—she is dizzyingly sensual in a role that will probably bring her another Oscar. (Her previous one was for Kramer vs. Kramer.) But director Karel (The Loves of Isadora) Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter guide her down a bumpy road. Trying to find a cinematic equivalent for a Fowles device (he sometimes offers various ways of looking at the same scene), Pinter created an awkward movie-within-a-movie format. Streep is a governess seduced by her French lieutenant and cast out by society. But the audience is not permitted simply to watch her steal the affections of an above-her-station gentleman, superb newcomer Jeremy Irons, from his intended, Lynsey Baxter, and then make him suffer as she has. This absorbing tale is constantly interrupted with a contemporary love story between Streep and Irons, playing two modern actors making a film. The only result is confusion, and even Streep seems self-conscious in these scenes. Most everything else is exactly right. Reisz shot the film in Lyme Regis, England (where Fowles now lives), using many of the book’s actual locations. Freddie Francis’ impassioned camerawork, especially Streep on the storm-swept seawall, is a sight for the ages. It’s tempting to dismiss this difficult, demanding film for its faltering step. Better to salute it for its daring. (R)

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