"Robert, I want you to come" Francesca says with an almost pleading tone over the telephone, thus initiating the four-day amour between her and Robert, a traveling photographer on a short trip to Iowa. It is an adventure for Francesca, who considers herself a common Iowan housewife without a liking for change. She is anything but common, as Robert tells her in another scene, otherwise she would not have said those words; Francesca fully knew what she was doing, yet she on her own accord went ahead. How long her relationship could last with Robert did not matter to her then; what mattered was that she could find pure happiness with this man, a state she had not felt in years.
This adventure gradually becomes a spiritual journey for the unhappy housewife, graduating unraveling the mysteries of life and love. But the leap to a spiritual journey requires a renunciation from her adventure; otherwise the love shared between Francesca and Robert would culminate in nothing more than a relationship. And so, Bridges of Madison County does away with the pretty Hollywood ending and still, everything does end up well for everyone.
A thought message indeed, but what problems is that Bridges of Madison County is that it often makes us feel as though we're watching a normal lifetime film which sole intent is to make big moral observations whenever and wherever possible. So the scenes are often plagued with 'that moment when there's momentarily silence after which a character speaks something big' – it often is found just before a scene ends. And while Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, our Robert and Francesca, do try not to allow this film to slip into a silly melodrama, the clichéd material sometimes becomes overwhelming for the two. The two other actors playing Francesca grow-up children do not help either, almost making it look as though two separate films of different caliber – the better one with Streep and Eastwood, of course, were spliced together.
Bridges of Madison County begins with Francesca's children Caroline and Michael arriving at their recently deceased mother's Iowa home for settlement of her estate. Both the children are married and both are happy with their marriages and yet they've cheated on their spouses nor have they thought of a divorce. Michael does have a valid reason for being mad at his wife though, because she says the darndest things at the most appropriate time; just when Michael is handed the keys of Francesca's safety deposit box, she offhandedly jokes that Francesca could've left millions in the box for her children. No, it is not a Hitchcock story so forget the millions; instead what's found in the box is an old camera, pictures and letters. Caroline begins reading one of the letters and learners that her mother had written a love letter once to a man named Robert. She talks to Michael in private and the two beginning reading the letters after asking Michael's wife and the accompanying lawyer to leave. There's a silly line spoken by Caroline when she opens a magazine which has a picture of Robert Kincaid with the name mentioned clearly on the left; she asserts "This must be Robert Kincaid" even when the names clearly visible to even the audience's eye.
Letters reveal that Francesca deliberately kept the items for her children so that they may know her secret and not consider her a mad raving woman for requesting in her will to cremate her body and throw the ashes near Roseman Covered Bridge, which Robert used to visit along with Francesca to shoot photographs for National Geographic. At first, both Michael and Caroline are disgusted but as they hear Francesca's story, first through her letters and then through her diaries, they realize how these four days significantly affected their mother's attitude (positively) towards life, and they slowly begin empathizing with her and introspect on their own outlooks towards life and marriage.
Annie Corley and Victor Slezak, playing Caroline and Michael respectively, give stilted and forgettable performances. Slezak especially fails with his 'Chandler' look from Friends that can seriously be taken seriously. They're not completely at fault, as the framing device (kids reading mother's letters with such unwholesome curiosity it feels as though they've been given a copy of Fifty Shades of Gray) is weakly implemented; there's a pretty shot scene when Michael wants to know why his mother did not leave the family and Caroline and he immediately turn their heads towards their mother's diary and then look at each other. The scene makes you wonder why a great filmmaker like Eastwood could not think of a better way of taking us back and forth in time.
It's the elders who steal the show. While Eastwood brings a gentle and very likeable charm to his Robert, Streep goes way beyond everyone else in embodying Francesca. She's an encyclopedia of body language and came show passion by degrees. Watch the initial scenes where she keeps rubbing her hands and moving a little returns as she's speaking to Robert, a usual sign for initial discomfort while talking to strangers. Later, when she's closer to Robert and meets him at the bridge, the two shake hands and we see Meryl use both her hands to greet him (keeping one of top of other), usually done while greeting more warmly. A very erotic moment does not involve sex but happens when Francesca simply adjusts Robert's collar and places her hand on his shoulder; you know Streep's worked her magic by watching Eastwood's expressions.
Bridges of Madison County is a decent film that's worth watching once for Eastwood and twice for Streep. But one should be willing to end some contrived writing, middling supporting performances and weak framing device.