The French Lieutenant's Woman

Movie review by
Kat Halstead, Common Sense Media
The French Lieutenant's Woman Movie Poster Image
Classic romance has non-graphic sexual content, language.
  • R
  • 1981
  • 124 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The movie teaches that actions have consequences. It also highlights the difficult dynamic between responsibility and freedom, societal rules, and personal ethics. An adulterous affair is central to the plot.

Positive Role Models

Actors Anna and Mike are having an adulterous affair in real life that reflects that of the relationship of the characters from the film they are starring in. Scenes set in the Victorian era movie express the sexist values of the time, including Anna's character, Sarah, becoming an outcast for a relationship with a soldier. Mike's character, a scientist called Charles, shows a refusal to judge her and a kindness toward her, but this is ultimately led by desire.


Mild peril involves a character on a windy outcrop overlooking the sea. A brawl in a bar spills out into the street. A character is pushed to the floor and hits their head. There is a description of a serious wound, but it is not shown. A scene in an asylum includes screaming, mention of a breach birth, and blood on a doctor's hands.


Characters kiss and engage in sexual intercourse, though no nudity is shown. Regular references are made to affairs, prostitution, and brothels.


Occasional strong language includes "f--k." The word "whore" is used frequently throughout.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters drink alcohol frequently and one scene involves a character intoxicated to the point of passing out. Cigars and cigarettes are also smoked regularly and there is a passing mention of being drugged.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The French Lieutenant's Woman is a British romantic drama, based on John Fowles' novel, with adult themes, non-graphic sex scenes, and some language. Part of the movie takes place as a film-within-a-film, with actors Anna (Meryl Streep) and Mike (Jeremy Irons) filming a Victorian-era romance, where sexist values are expressed and there is frequent mention of prostitution and use of the word "whore." The other part is set in the modern day with Anna and Mike conducting an affair in real life. Characters kiss and there are short sex scenes, but without nudity. Drinking and smoking are shown frequently. There is occasional strong language, which includes "f--k." Mental health is referenced in the form of "melancholia" and there are mildly disturbing scenes in an asylum.

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What's the story?

In THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN, actors Anna (Meryl Streep) and Mike (Jeremy Irons) are filming a period romance, set in Victorian-era England. Their movie follows the relationship between shamed outcast Sarah and scientist gentleman Charles. This onscreen relationship mirrors that of the actors' offscreen extramarital affair in the real world. Will life imitate art to the final credits, or is a different ending written for the present-day romance?

Is it any good?

Complex and multi-layered, the movie uses a film-within-a-film structure to ground its story in a modern reality, while still exploring the restrictive sensibilities of the Victorian era. The French Lieutenant's Woman was adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter, from John Fowles' novel and saw Streep Oscar nominated for her dual performance as Anna and Sarah. Streep moves effortlessly between the flippant Hollywood actress and the melodramatic Victorian outcast, while Irons is convincingly intoxicated and frustrated with both versions.

Stunning cinematography in the Victorian scenes evokes the wildness of Sarah's character, the crashing sea and dense, labyrinthine woodland a reflection of her troubled psyche and her rebellion against the strict, suffocating society of the time. Though the impact of the modern-day scenes is sometimes lost in comparison, with the relationship feeling somewhat subdued in its realism. Well-crafted and beautifully acted, with impressive period detail throughout, this is a wistful and emotive study of passion and desire at once restricted by and transcending the boundaries of societal rules.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how The French Lieutenant's Woman portrays sex. Is it affectionate? Respectful? Parents, talk to your teens about your own values regarding sex and relationships.

  • Talk about the language used in the movie. How did it change in the scenes set in Victorian England to those in modern day? Discuss the idea that language changes over the years. Why do you think that's the case?

  • How does the movie depict Victorian England? In what ways is society shown to differ for men and women?

  • Discuss the dual reality structure. How did the movie make it clear which era it was in? Can you think of any other examples of a film-within-a-film structure?

Movie details

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For kids who love drama and romance

Themes & Topics

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