A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Bridges of Madison County is a lushly romantic 1995 drama based on the wildly popular 1992 novel by Robert James Waller that stars director Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep as middle-aged lovers. A married woman has an affair. Kissing and brief scenes of lovers in dim light will probably neither shock nor offend younger teens, but the film's structure underscores the notion that parents have full-fledged, passionate private lives about which their self-absorbed teenaged children may know nothing. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. A single utterance of the word "f--k." A glimpse of a bare bottom when two lovers are in bed.
What's the story?
Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood, who also directed) is a National Geographic photographer driving through 1960 Iowa farm country looking for famed covered bridges, the titular BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY that he's been assigned to shoot. He stops at a farmhouse to ask for directions of Francesca (Meryl Streep), the lonely Italian-American housewife whose husband and kids are away at the State Fair. The innocent encounter leads to a deep romance that lasts four days and although they painfully part ways, neither ever forgets the other. Trying to persuade Francesca to leave her husband of many years and their teenaged children, Robert agonizingly observes that everything he's ever done up to that point has been leading him to find Francesca. Francesca wants to go with him but can't hurt her husband. And she recognizes that even though her nearly-grown children barely even speak to her anymore, they still need her. She doesn't want to upend their lives or let them think she wasn't fully committed to them and their father so she does the noble thing and, like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, gives up love for something more important than herself. All of this is revealed to Francesca's now middle-aged children after her death as they grapple with Francesca's odd burial wishes (she wants her ashes to rest where it turns out Robert's were strewn). Much of the action takes place in flashbacks based on journal entries Francesca left for her children to read.
Is it any good?
This well-made movie is far better than the simple-minded, tear-jerking, bestselling novel of 1992 it was based on. The overall message -- that it's best to sacrifice personal happiness for the happiness of loved ones -- is the flip-side of many famed tales about the doomed fate of heedless lovers who abandon everything for love. Sadly, some remnants of what made the book annoying stubbornly remain -- there's an underlying preachiness, as if the goal is to condescendingly instruct Francesca's children, and secondarily the rest of us, on what true love looks like.
Redeeming the material are Eastwood as both director and in the role of Robert, the dreamy, courtly wanderer, and Streep, as the uprooted Italian girl now a rural Iowa housewife. They give the feathery writing enough weight to suggest believability. Middle-aged love may not interest teenagers much, but mature teens may connect with the idea that children can never really know their parents. The flashbacks not only show us something about Francesca's true nature but also create a sense of the cycle of life that many of us go through, from abandoning childish dreams to surviving the death of parents. The Bridges of Madison County does succumb a bit to preachiness at the end as Francesca's disappointments, losses, and death move both of her children to do the best they can with the time they still have left. The implication is that viewers ought to do the same.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how this movie compares to stories about people who run off and follow their passions and thereby bring about their own downfalls. Does The Bridges of Madison County applaud Francesca for her sacrifice, or do you think it disapproves of her choice? Why?
Do you think Francesca did the right thing? Why? Do you think she and Robert would have been happy together had she gone off with him, or do you think her regrets and guilt would have ruined their relationship?
The movie seems to suggest that while great passion and deep love are rare, they might in some ways be destructive and selfish. Do you agree?
- In theaters: June 2, 1995
- On DVD or streaming: June 1, 2010
- Cast: Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, Victor Slezak
- Director: Clint Eastwood
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Romance
- Run time: 135 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: for some sexuality and brief strong language
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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