Warner Bros. is seemingly forever digging into its catalog to kick out more and more titles on Blu-ray disc. Next in line is “The Bridges of Madison County,” one of those movies that I saw tidbits of over the years during many television airings and sort of wrote off as too fluffy for my taste. A little maturity goes a long way, and in watching it now, nearly 20 years after it was released in 1995, I find it to be an intriguingly balanced story, mainly because of the work Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep provide. At times it isn’t all that polished, but the romance its leads exhibit makes up for that big time.
The film is based on a novel with an identical title by Robert James Waller. Not having read the book, it is difficult for me to compare one to the other in terms of quality and accuracy, but casual internet research has helped me to decipher that the film does a pretty good job tracking the novel’s events. Waller’s novel was adapted into a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, and it gives both Eastwood (who also directed and produced) and Streep some room to work while simultaneously generating a dynamic foundation for each individual character’s perspective to operate from.
We meet Carolyn Johnson (Annie Corley) and her brother Michael (Victor Slezak) in the present as they dig through their recently deceased mother’s old home in rural Iowa. The pair spend time reminiscing a bit about their upbringing and their mother Francesca’s (Streep) permanent impact on their lives, ultimately discovering her will and safe deposit box. Prior to her death, Francesca carefully specific directions for her family to follow: she wished to be cremated and have her ashes thrown off of the Roseman Covered Bridge. Both are perplexed as they take a break from the work, and eventually they find pictures and old letters their mother received from a man named Robert Kincaid (Eastwood).
We are then taken back to the mid-1960s where Robert arrives in rural Madison County to photographic the area’s historic covered bridges for a National Geographic essay. He stumbles upon Francesca’s home, and the tow initiate a romantic affair while her husband and children have traveled away for the state fair. They go on walks, drink, sleep together and debate with one another about many things, substantial and otherwise. In the end, everyone goes separate ways, but not before the film’s focus on its prior events directly impacts those in the present.
I’m not usually one for movies like “The Bridges of Madison County.” They are slower films that really take their time establishing characters and developing substance for the audience to absorb. Plus, with romance dramas like these, I usually think that seeing one is essentially like seeing them all. But with the performances that Eastwood and Streep put forward here, it’s hard not to at least give a little credit where it’s due.
Streep secured a Best Actress nomination for her role in the film, and my best guess for this is because she takes the role of an Italian war bride and morphs it into something that transcends the boundaries initially set by the script. It is worth noting that for basically everyone connected to the production except Eastwood, Streep was pretty low on the list to play Francesca. But she does it in a manner that blends varying emotional stages together with extreme credibility and poise, all the while balancing her demeanor as a woman working ever so hard to carve out her own identity in what was still very much a man’s world.
When you see an Eastwood film (and, by the term “Eastwood film,” I specifically mean a title he has at least directed and starred in), you rapidly develop strong reactions to characters, many of whom don’t play the line down the middle but instead work to polarize themselves into one camp or another. “The Bridges of Madison County” presents Eastwood as the lead in a role where he is tempered but not at all silenced. Most photographers will tell you they love to take pictures for the artistic creativity and beauty it offers, as well as the fact that they often aren’t good with words. We see these and many other sentiments in his thorough depiction of a man so in love with his art form he nearly overlooks true love as it sits at his fingertips.
If there is a flaw to “The Bridges of Madison County,” it is its extremely gradual pace. The film feels like it is going to run for 3+ hours at times, and it probably could have, truth be told. I’m a big believer in letting directors craft their films in a manner that best achieves the creative, artistic and tonal messages they desire, but at the end of the day, you can usually do so in less time rather than more time. Eastwood understands this now in a different way than when “The Bridges of Madison County” was made, but regardless, it feels like it takes longer than it actually does.
Visually, the film is slightly above average, but the shots Eastwood’s character takes of the bridges and surrounding areas are impressive. Much of the movie was shot on location, and while the cinematography isn’t exactly polished, the physical surroundings exude a peace and serenity that lends itself quite well to the film’s undertone.
“The Bridges of Madison County” may not be good enough to steal the spotlight from your favorite romance film given how many other good choices there are these days, but the impeccable detail Eastwood prioritizes all the way through make it better than most.
The film’s 1.85:1 1080p High Definition video transfer does a pretty good job bringing the vivid, rural setting to life by leaning on natural light and bright colors in a way that adds depth and personality. There was a little more film grain visible than I would have preferred, but the film is no spring chicken. The color tones do vary a bit, as they would for a photographer of Robert’s skill set (perhaps this intentional). The transfer is a solid one, but it is far from perfect.
The English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack doesn’t have to do a whole lot given there are no massive car chases or combat sequences during “The Bridges of Madison County,” but it is a good transfer nonetheless. Vocals are not difficult to pick up on from start to finish, and the audio works very well in sync with the film’s musical score to pace the gradual development. Other selections offered and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1s, while English, French and Spanish subtitles can be enabled.
An audio commentary by editor Joel Cox and director of photography Jack N. Green, a featurette, the theatrical trailer and a music video round out the special features. It feels pretty cookie cutter because, well, it is.
A Final Word:
“The Bridges of Madison County” is a warm, inviting romantic drama with strong lead performances that ground the entire film. It establishes a high standard for those attempting to reach its prowess. Many try year after year. Few succeed.