Mr. And Mrs. Bridge

1990, Movie, PG-13, 124 mins

Review

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Everything's up-to-date in Kansas City, but then the clock stops circa the early 40s for Walter and India Bridge, the leads of this gem of a period piece and finely wrought drama of an American marriage. Actually, life for the provincial upper middle class couple--played brilliantly by the long-married Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward--hasn't stopped or even settled in. More precisely, it has congealed. As if frozen in time, their stolidly conservative, predictable existence is clearly stultifying. Still, boring lives don't necessarily make for boring films, and the cumulative impact onscreen is anything but. The main characters are indelibly set in their ways with an almost foolish consistency. He is a prosperous lawyer who is hopelessly intractable. Archly self-satisfied and authoritarian, he patronizes his wife (all women, for that matter), votes straight Republican, and confines his actions to the very narrow channels he deems acceptable. She is a relic of Victorian sensibilities, a living embodiment of the antique aphorism, "children should be seen, not heard" grown to maturity. So hungry for affection and desperate to please, she has long since lost any individual identity and emerges as a mass of repression.

So what happens? Not much. But then that's just the point of the film, derived almost literally from both of Evan S. Connell's best-selling novels (Mrs. Bridge was written in 1959; Mr. Bridge in 1967). What fills the screen is not heightened melodrama, but a series of stark, sometimes painfully poignant vignettes that reflect the oppressive stasis of their lives. The events depicted are episodic in nature. India is rebuffed by her son when he refuses to kiss her at a Boy Scout ceremony. One daughter, the rebellious, sexually charged Ruth (Sedgwick), opts for the arty, Bohemian life in New York, and is tolerantly bankrolled by her father. Her younger, more conventional sister, Carolyn (Welsh) makes an impulsive marriage to a college beau. Mrs. Bridge is ordered by her husband to ignore tornado warnings during a dinner at their club, and despite entreaties from fellow members and the staff that she head for shelter, fearfully obeys him until the storm subsides. Her best friend Grace (Danner), a banker's wife (and closet heretic), conforms to the ultraconservative codes expected of her until the strain grows too much to bear. Another friend, Mabel (Gale Garnett), who fancies herself a rebel, turns to a psychoanalyst for help. Mr. Bridge ignores the feelings of his secretary of 20 years, a spinster who has long been in love with him. And so on. Everything leads up to the final scene, which seems to synthesize the very essence of the film. One ordinary winter day, India dresses for a trip to town, gets into her car and starts backing out of the garage when the motor conks out. The garage is too narrow for her to open the car door and get out, so she is trapped, and sits waiting for her husband to come home and rescue her.

As India Bridge, Woodward eloquently recreates an emotional dishrag that's been squeezed dry. She perceptively portrays a naive, totally guileless mother of three, a suburban matron and country club member whose inner dreams have been put on permanent hold. Her utterly respectable, lackluster life remains defined by what everyone else--especially her husband--expects of her. She wouldn't think of making a decision without his input. Though Newman does an excellent job as Mr. Bridge--his low-keyed interpretation of the highly controlled, highly controlling patriarch is a powerful example of emotional restraint---the kudos must go to his wife. But to both their credit, they play the parts with enough humor and compassion to avoid reducing their roles to caricatures. You might not quite exactly like them as individuals, but as a film, you will. leave a comment

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Mr. And Mrs. Bridge
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