But there's worse. Opening an envelope - they find a key to a large chest in their mother's bedroom that contains stuff they've never seen - let alone suspected. Dark horse Francesca (Meryl Streep) has had a secret past life - in fact a lifelong torch for someone else other than Richard Johnson - their father who has himself passed in 1982 (played to understated loving perfection by Jim Haynie). It transpires that Francesca had a passionate four-day love affair in the mid Sixties with a photographer from the National Geographic magazine called Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) while her husband and 17 and 16-year old teenagers were away at the Illinois State Fair exhibiting a prize steer. It is Robert Kincaid she wants to give "the rest of me" to.
Now in their mid 40's - both shaken siblings (played with aching delicacy by Victor Slezak and Annie Corley) get out a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey and brace themselves - as they collectively read three handwritten diaries their mother has poured her innermost thoughts and passions into. "What becomes important is 'to be known'..." - she writes. And they slowly but painfully learn why...
We're back in 1965 and a 45-year old Francesca Johnson is beating a dusty rug on her farmstead porch when a pick-up from Bellingham in Washington DC comes trundling towards the house. Out steps a rugged world-travelled man in his early Sixties who is temporarily lost and needs directions to the Roseman Bridge - an assignment he's been sent to photograph (the camera is his chosen art). The beautiful wooden-canopied gap between two separate roads is only two miles from her home - Francesca nervously advises. Robert then smiles in return as she fumbles spoken directions - clearly excited by a handsome male presence. But it's more than that. There is an undercurrent - a meeting of like minds that seem to have been travelling towards each other for decades - an instant spark - an understanding between them. And so her secret love story begins...
Streep received a 10th Oscar nomination for her work here and perhaps she should have won (yet again). The character dance between her and Eastwood is simply stupendous - giving her frumpy but sensuous Italian woman nervous twitches, all hands on her face and arms, eyes running over his body, catching glimpses of him through gaps in the wood and net curtains, fanning her naked body at night in the cool breeze to calm her thoughts down. Sometimes the talks they have in the kitchen are so good that you feel your eavesdropping on an actual conversation in motion. And when the harsh reality of what they're doing kicks in - the 'morning after sequence' doesn't shirk it either. She riles at him angrily - feeling used - just another notch on his well-travelled gun. Yet the scene manages to be tender, hurting and utterly believable too.
Adapted from Robert James Waller's beloved novel - the screenplay for 1995's "Bridges" by Richard La Gravenese is a masterpiece of understatement and lightness of touch. Combined with Clint Eastwood's keep-it-simple Direction and an amazing on-screen chemistry between two great actors at the top of their game - this is also a movie of rare depth - one that speaks to the Soul on several levels. On the one hand you have the grown-up son and daughter grappling with parental loss - both in marriages that have seen better days (hers in terminal decline). The other theme is the longing for real love - and to have actually lived rather than just coasted through life. Both ooze out of so many scenes - imbibing the film with a truth that is often uncomfortable and sad - yet somehow hopeful. It's a gushingly romantic tale really - a Brief Encounter with an American twist.
I'm thrilled to say that Warner Brothers have put up a fabulous print. The Region Free American BLU RAY is GORGEOUS TO LOOK AT and at times shockingly so. It's defaulted to Full Screen Aspect (so you miss nothing). Principal in all this cinematic glory is Jack Green's sumptuous cinematography and the lighting he catches in Iowa - warm evenings - the daytime air filled with dust and butterflies and pollen particles on the wind - it's just beautiful to look at. Examples are the scene where Robert surprises Francesca on the bridge with blue flowers he's just picked - when they walk in the evening talking about the poetry of W.B. Yeats - when they discuss life at the kitchen table and how she came from the small town of Bari in Southern Italy to Iowa with her Military husband Richard to a life full of dreams not quite realized. Even when her family sits at the dinner table virtually ignoring her cooking and maternal efforts - the textures of their clothes and rural furniture details are absolutely spot on.
Special mention should also go to Eastwood's piano theme "Doe Eyes" that is so exquisitely elegant and moving. It takes a full half-hour to arrive (the first Bridge scene when they get physically close to each other) - but each time it does - it grows and grows in stature - until it has the power of a hammerblow. It's most effective in the penultimate scene towards the end when it's pouring rain and Francesca gets into her husband's truck only to see Robert in his pickup parked opposite on the street (he's come back for her). He exits - stands there exposed and soaked - hoping she'll leave her good husband and family for him - but knows it's a decision that she alone must make. For a moment - Francesca grabs the door handle of her own truck when she sees her name pendant hanging from his rear-view mirror calling her home. The 'will she/won't she go with him' moment of agony lingers. But she crushes down her feelings of longing and love - settling for what has to be done. She must stay with her husband and family who will be `broken in half' if she actually acts on such a delicious but destructive impulse. It's a heartbreakingly beautiful scene - and I can assure you - there isn't going to be a dry eye in any home anywhere when it's watched (keep the Kleenex handy).
The BLU RAY carries over the DVD Commentary and 'Making Of' called "An Old Fashioned Love Story..." that has interviews with DOP Jack Green, Writer Richard La Gravenese, Producer Kathleen Kennedy, Editor Joel Cox, Actors Eastwood, Streep, Slezak, Corley and Haynie and features location footage of Winterset in Ohio where it was shot.
Audio is DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1, Dolby Digital, French 5.1, Spanish 5.1 (Castilian) and Spanish 2.0 (Latin) - while Subtitles are in English SDH, French and Spanish.
Why is this movie so effecting? The lifetime our parents have given us - the debt we can't repay them - the love we can't have - the passion we didn't grab when we had the chance? I don't know if I want the answer.
"This kind of certainty comes along but once in a lifetime..." - Robert tells Francesca in a moment of clarity that will stay with them until their ashes are scattered to the four winds. Well now you can savour its magic over and over again. "The Bridges Of Madison County" is that kind of cinematic masterpiece.
PS: I dedicate this review to my wife Mary Ann and our three kids - Dean, Julia and Sean who saw me through a recent medical nightmare...