The Portrait of a Lady

1996, PG-13, 144 min. Directed by Jane Campion. Starring Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Donovan, Shelley Winters, Richard E. Grant, Shelley Duvall, Christian Bale, Viggo Mortensen, Valentina Cervi..

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 17, 1997

Great and evident artistry shapes this film version of the Henry James novel The Portrait of a Lady. Yet the end result perplexes as much as it fascinates. Jane Campion, the much-lauded director of The Piano, and screenwriter Laura Jones (An Angel at My Table) bring their modern sensibilities to bear on this story of James’ 1870s heroine Isabel Archer, a young, sharp-minded, American woman abroad who inherits unexpected wealth and uses it to live as she likes, traveling and rejecting numerous suitors until she falls into an unwise marriage that nearly becomes her ruination. From the opening credits, Campion signals her intention to recontextualize this classic novel for modern times and feminist analysis. The sound and images behind the credits are those of contemporary young women talking of their feelings about love and first kisses. The movie then opens in apparent mid-scene with Isabel (Kidder) rejecting her first suitor, even though he offers her a choice of castles to live in. Campion and Jones add a psychosexual fervor to the story and include several Freudian fantasy sequences as Isabel makes her way through the world as a single woman. Yet, the movie only seems interested in this phase of Isabel’s life as a preliminary background to her unhappy marriage. Her broadening travels are depicted simply (and frugally) as a picture-postcard diorama. The movie focuses primarily on Isabel’s attraction to and near-undoing by the manipulative aesthete Gilbert Osmond (Malkovich). Prior to this, we see too little of the searing intelligence that has earned Isabel so many admirers and, likewise, we also see too little of the internal fire that lures Isabel to the viperous Osmond. In a movie marked by outstanding performances, Malkovich is the one weak link. We’ve seen him vamp through these coyly sinister roles a few too many times, and his Osmond comes off like a creature left over from Dangerous Liaisons. Kidman does what she can to bring the movie’s opaque Isabel to life (though I seriously doubt the role will win her the Oscar that, rightly, should have been hers last year for her delicious work in To Die For). As her sickly cousin and biggest admirer, Hal Hartley regular Martin Donovan makes a strong impression, as do John Gielgud (especially in a memorable death scene) and Barbara Hershey. No small contribution to the film’s overall impact is made by the wonderfully rich and atmospheric work of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (Lone Star, Once Were Warriors, The Piano). Toward the end of The Portrait of a Lady, sequences and events have a hurried feel that not only contrast sharply with the steady tone that preceded it but also pack too much subtle information into too little space. However, for all its misfires, The Portrait of a Lady paints a fascinating picture.

More Jane Campion Films
Bright Star
Jane Campion's achingly immediate yet eternal story about the love between tubercular poet John Keats and the literal girl-next-door, Fanny Brawne. It affords the filmmaker another rich opportunity to scratch beneath the surface of female sexuality.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Sept. 25, 2009

In the Cut
Jane Campion's erotic thriller In the Cut dulls its cutting edge.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Oct. 31, 2003

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The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion, Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Donovan, Shelley Winters, Richard E. Grant, Shelley Duvall, Christian Bale, Viggo Mortensen, Valentina Cervi.

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