Witty, literate and enigmatic, The Romantic Englishwoman is a film that knows just how to play its cards. With a script by Tom Stoppard and Thomas Wiseman, based on his novel, and late-period direction by Joseph Losey, the film vacillates between comedy and drama, reality and fiction, with a character-driven tale of mistrust and deception at its center.
Elizabeth Fielding (Glenda Jackson) is a bored British housewife who takes a holiday alone in the German spa town of Baden-Baden. While she’s away, her novelist husband Lewis (Michael Caine), envisions her cheating with a random stranger she met in the elevator. Indeed, she did meet someone in the elevator — a gigolo and drug smuggler who calls himself a poet named Thomas (Helmut Berger) — but no impropriety occurred, at least not yet.
Upon her return home, it becomes quickly obvious why she left in the first place, as her and Lewis’s mutual distrust of one another boils to the surface in a series of well-aimed verbal barbs — some of which find their way into the screenplay that Lewis is writing.
After Thomas contacts Lewis, he’s delighted to welcome him into their home as a sort of jab at Elizabeth, and as a source of inspiration for his own screenplay. Thomas, in turn, shows himself to be a shameless mooch, eating their food, philandering with their au pair and generally acting like an ass. Soon, Lewis and Elizabeth are both ready to see him go, but neither will admit it to the other.
As Lewis’s screenplay progresses, he continues to imagine his wife and Thomas carrying on an illicit affair, and the script follows suit. The line between what is real and imagine becomes blurred, and soon, it’s not clear whether real life is influencing the script or the other way around.