In the present day, adult siblings Michael and Carolyn arrive at the Iowa farmhouse of Francesca Johnson, their recently deceased, elderly mother, to see about the settlement of their mother's estate. As they go through the contents of her safe deposit box and the will, they are baffled to discover that their mother left very specific instructions that her body be cremated and her ashes thrown off the nearby Roseman Covered Bridge, which is not in accordance with the burial arrangements their parents had made: side-by-side plots in the local cemetery. Michael initially refuses to comply with the cremation, while Carolyn discovers a set of photos of her mother and a letter. She manages to convince Michael to set aside his initial reaction so they can read the documents she has discovered. Once alone, they go through a series of letters from a man named Robert Kincaid to their mother. The siblings find their way to a chest where their mother left a letter, a series of diaries, photographs, old cameras and other mementos.
They discovered that in 1965, their mother, an Italian war bride, had a four-day affair with Robert Kincaid, a travelling professional photographer who had come to Madison County, Iowa, to shoot a photographic essay for National Geographic on the covered bridges in the area. The affair took place while her husband and children were at the state fair in Illinois.
The story in the diaries also reveals the impact the affair had on the lives of Francesca and Robert, since they almost ran away together, so she could travel the world with him. However, after a wrenching period of decision-making, she decided to stay at the last minute after considering the bigger picture that includes the consequences leaving would have on the lives of her teenage children and husband, who was a good, loving man. Kincaid is very moved by meeting her. He finds meaning and his true calling as an artist. The story also has deep consequences on the lives of Michael and Carolyn, who are both experiencing marital problems. Their mother’s story helped them to find a sense of direction in their lives. At the end, the Johnson siblings comply with their mother’s request and scatter their mother's ashes at the covered bridge.Clint Eastwood as Robert Kincaid
Meryl Streep as Francesca Johnson
Annie Corley as Carolyn Johnson
Sarah Kathryn Schmitt as young Carolyn
Victor Slezak as Michael Johnson
Christopher Kroon as young Michael
Jim Haynie as Richard Johnson
Phyllis Lyons as Betty
Debra Monk as Madge
Richard Lage as Lawyer Peterson
Michelle Benes as Lucy Redfield
Amblin Entertainment, a production company founded by Steven Spielberg, bought the film rights to Waller's novel for $25,000 in late 1991, before its publication—by the time of the film's release, the novel sold 9.5 million copies worldwide. Spielberg first asked Sydney Pollack to direct, who got Kurt Luedtke to draft the first version of the adaptation but then bowed out; Ronald Bass was brought in by Kathleen Kennedy and Spielberg to work on the script, but they were unsatisfied with the results. But a third draft by Richard LaGravenese was liked by Eastwood, who quite early had been cast for the male lead, and by Spielberg, who liked LaGravenese's version enough to consider making Bridges his next film after Schindler's List, which was in post-production at the time. Both men liked that LaGravenese's script presented the story from Francesca's point of view; Spielberg then had LaGravenese introduce the framing device of having Francesca's adult children discover and read her diaries. When Spielberg decided not to direct, he then brought in Bruce Beresford, who got Alfred Uhry to draft another version of the script; when Warner Bros., Spielberg, and Eastwood all preferred LaGravenese's draft, Beresford dropped out.
Waller championed Isabella Rossellini to play Francesca; she was a "strong contender" in a list that also included Anjelica Huston, Jessica Lange, Mary McDonnell, Cher, and Susan Sarandon. But despite Spielberg's initial reluctance, Eastwood had advocated Meryl Streep for the role from the beginning.
Principal photography took 42 days, ending on November 1, 1994, ten days ahead of Eastwood's 52-day schedule; Eastwood filmed it chronologically from Francesca's point of view, "because it was important to work that way. We were two people getting to know each other, in real time, as actors and as the characters." It was filmed on location in Madison County, Iowa, including the town of Winterset, and in the Dallas County town of Adel. The Bell's Mills Bridge, in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, was also a filming location.
The MPAA ratings board initially gave the film an "R" rating, for the line "Or should we just fuck on the linoleum one last time?", a line of dialogue spoken sarcastically by Francesca; Eastwood appealed, and the rating was reduced to a PG-13.
The Bridges of Madison County opened theatrically on June 2, 1995 in 1,805 venues. It earned $10,519,257 in its opening weekend, ranking number two in the North American box office, behind Casper (which was in its second weekend). At the end of its run, the film grossed $71,516,617 domestically and $110,500,000 overseas for a worldwide total of $182,016,617.
Rotten Tomatoes reports a score of 89% based on 57 reviews, with an average rating of 7.4/10. The site's consensus states: "Sentimental, slow, schmaltzy, and very satisfying, The Bridges of Madison County finds Clint Eastwood adapting a bestseller with heft, wit, and grace." On Metacritic, the film has a 66 out of 100 rating, based on 22 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
According to Janet Maslin, "Clint Eastwood, director and alchemist, has transformed The Bridges of Madison County into something bearable—no, something even better. Limited by the vapidity of this material while he trims its excesses with the requisite machete, Mr. Eastwood locates a moving, elegiac love story at the heart of Mr. Waller's self-congratulatory overkill. The movie has leanness and surprising decency, and Meryl Streep has her best role in years. Looking sturdy and voluptuous in her plain housedress (the year is 1965), Ms. Streep rises straight out of "Christina's World" to embody all the loneliness and fierce yearning Andrew Wyeth captured on canvas. And yet, despite the Iowa setting and the emphasis on down-home Americana, Mr. Eastwood's Bridges of Madison County has a European flavor. Its pace is unhurried, which is not the same as slow. It respects long silences and pays attention to small details. It sustains an austere tone and staves off weepiness until the last reel. It voices musings that would definitely sound better in French." Richard Corliss said Eastwood is the "most reticent of directors—where the book ogles, the film discreetly observes—and, here, the courtliest of stars....As scripted by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King), the Madison County movie has a slightly riper theme than the book's. It is about the anticipation and consequences of passion—the slow dance of appraisal, of waiting to make a move that won't be rejected, of debating what to do when the erotic heat matures into love light. What is the effect of an affair on a woman who has been faithful to her husband, and on a rootless man who only now realizes he needs the one woman he can have but not hold?" Corliss concludes "Madison County is Eastwood's gift to women: to Francesca, to all the girls he's loved before—and to Streep, who alchemizes literary mawkishness into intelligent movie passion."
The film tied with Goodbye South, Goodbye and Carlito's Way as the best film of the 1990s in a poll by Cahiers du cinéma.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – #90
2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"I See Your Face Before Me" – Nominated