The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a beautiful film to look at, and remarkably well-acted.
TV Guide Magazine
Though occasionally jarring, the intercutting between the parallel stories, aided immeasurably by Streep's disparate characterizations, succeeds in conveying the complexity of Fowles' novel.
The New York Times
The film's beauty is dazzling. It stands with—or perhaps a little ahead of—Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Roman Polanski's Tess, but it also must be conceded, quickly and without too stern a reproach, that there is less to The French Lieutenant's Woman than meets the dazzled eye.
The casting of Meryl Streep as Sarah/Anna could not have been better. Sarah comes complete with unbridled passions and Anna is the cool, detached professional. There is never a false note in the sharply contrasting characters.
The French Lieutenant's Woman is one of the most civilized and provocative movies of the year, but it falls just short of greatness. Perhaps Reisz and Pinter are too innately reticent to wring the last drop of emotional power from Fowles's story. [21 Sep 1981, p.96]
Aesthetically beautiful and superbly acted, a sure sign of things to come from the leads.
Sufficiently attractive and absorbing to sustain the fond delusion that Charles' pursuit of the mystifying Sarah might culminate in a revealing, conclusive confrontation. [02 Oct 1981, p.C1]
The New Yorker
Meryl Streep gives an immaculate, technically accomplished performance as Sarah Woodruff, the romantic mystery woman of John Fowles' novel, but she isn't mysterious. We're not fascinated by Sarah; she's so distanced from us that all we can do is observe how meticulous Streep -- and everything else about the movie -- is.
A rather poetic costume drama jarringly interrupted by bits of modern banality. [02 Oct 1981, p.17]
The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
Two great beginnings disappoint in the end. If the novel is a dying form, film treatments are the poison. [21 Sep 1981]