The Portrait of a Lady
First screened in January 1997; reviewed in February 1999
Director: Jane Campion. Cast: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Martin Donovan, Mary-Louise Parker, John Gielgud, Valentina Cervi, Christian Bale, Shelley Winters, Viggo Mortensen, Richard E. Grant, Shelley Duvall, Roger Ashton-Griffiths. Screenplay: Laura Jones (based on the novel by Henry James).

Photo © 1996 PolyGram Filmed Entertainment/Gramercy Pictures
Jane Campion, it seems, still hasn't met a lady whose portrait she is unable or unwilling to paint. The mother and daughter of The Piano, the spiky aunt in her marvelous short film Peel, and the two sisters in Sweetie, surly and surlier, all have less attractive personalities, monumentally so, than the mothers and lovers and sugary sidekicks in whose guises women are so often represented on screen. Campion has never faltered in her ability to make all of these figures hypnotically compelling for all of their mulishness or tenacity, which is one reason why she is not the obvious choice to bring Henry James' Isabel Archer to the screen. Beautiful, naïve, imperiled Isabel in The Portrait of a Lady has been loved by generations of readers since the novel appeared at the end of the 19th century. Despite James' famously daunting style, which has consequently made him far less a public favorite than a writer like Jane Austen, Isabel's bright intentions and terrible misfortunes have never failed to incur sympathy. A central premise of her story is that nearly everyone who meets her likes her, many of them (especially the men) struck with both awe and, shall we say, more interested forms of admiration.

What you must understand about this Portrait of a Lady, however, is that Campion's maverick spirit does not incline her toward any literal or conventional evocation of the novel's events. Even the tone of this picture is colder—rapturously beautiful, but all in blues and purples—than that of the book, which, for all its long sentences and intricate turns of phrase, makes clear its sympathy with Isabel and treats her with considerable warmth. Rather than a Filmed Classic, Campion embarks on a trickier but more daring project of mounting a particular reading of James' story. Her conception of Isabel, her experiences, and her decisions are refracted through 100 years of both our literary acquaintance with James' Isabel and of the emergence of female/feminist voices in society, not all of whom would necessarily accept Isabel as an innocent, non-complicit, "good" woman to whom bad things and bad people keep happening.

The product of Campion's efforts has been criticized for its formal distance, its psychological simplifications, and its harsh and ungenerous treatment of Isabel as a sufferer of false consciousness who walks blindly into her own trap. On the contrary, I think Campion is both adventurous and above-board in stating her revisionist projects from the opening frames and delivering a reading of The Portrait of a Lady which, for all its occasional flaws, is internally consistent, fairly designed, and imaginatively cinematic. Of all the recent spate of James adaptations (including Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square and Iain Softley's The Wings of the Dove), this one is my favorite, because it ironically honors James' own genius and eccentric talents by itself adhering to a vision that is uncommon, non-traditional, and, even in some un-Jamesian ways, intent on telling its story on its own challenging terms.

The first sequence in The Portrait of a Lady is one of two in the picture that most obviously depart from the 19th-century setting of the story, though shots and details throughout characterize the film's sensibility as deliberately modern, and defiantly Campion's. Before we see anything, Australian female voices rhapsodize in modern language about the joy of being kissed and the anticipatory wonder of watching men's lips approach their own. The screen comes up on about two dozen post-adolescent women in retro-contemporary wraps and hippie-garb, all of them lying, posing, and dancing in a forest glen. Stuart Dryburgh's camera, shooting this sequence mostly in black and white, closes in on the faces of several of these women, some of them still, others in swaying motion, all of them just waiting for the advent of the Lilith Fair.

Many of these ingénues have been chosen for the limpid, wistful beauty of their eyes; we stare into them so long that, when we cut to a full-color close-up on Nicole Kidman's teary blue peepers, we make two instantaneous though somewhat paradoxical conclusions. For one, the visual match likens Kidman's eyes to those of the dancers, and so we understand that Isabel looked upon the world as brightly and expectantly as we more easily understand young women of the 1990s to do. And yet, Isabel may not be judged a direct ancestor of the other young women, because their watchful gazes and the abrupt switch from monochrome to color suggests that they, from their contemporary vantage, are watching Isabel, assessing her and her movements. Their world is still in grayscale because they are young and have not yet "filled in" the colors of their lives. Isabel's story, however, has already been lived and come to full flower by the time these new women have entered the world, and so they (and we) behold it in color, as Isabel herself experienced it. The fact that Isabel's journey will be dominated by a few conspicuous and dolorous colors is an index of how limited and entrapping her world eventually becomes.

None of that sense of limitation exists in the picture's beginning, when her hand is being sought by the wealthy Lord Warburton, played by that priceless eccentric Richard E. Grant. Warburton has all the houses and money she could ever want, but Isabel in fact doesn't want any of it until she has been freed to experience more of the world—to become a more sophisticated and knowledgeable person, and not just so that she will one day be a more engaging companion to a husband. Isabel in fact imagines that she will never marry. Rather, she is ahead of her time (or at least ahead of most of her acquaintances) for wanting worldly experiences for the sake of cultivating her own soul. She wants more dimension than the affluent lifestyle of marriage and property will give her, yearns to become something greater than the mere portrait of a lady.

Dryburgh and Campion again demonstrate exquisite visual sense in filming Kidman against a uniform background of black as she announces her wish for emancipation from marital contracts; she is also noticeably off center in the shot because, for all her proud intentions, she is less secure than she imagines and without any sturdy authority over the way she will color in all that dark, blank space in her life. Her illusory aura of stubbornness and strength is exposed rather delicately by the recurrence of shots in which Isabel is reflected in a mirror, or distorted through a window, or merely rendered in double by intentional aberrations in Dryburgh's lens. Through all of these techniques, we see how often Isabel professes a certainty of motive or opinion but is actually and almost literally "of two minds."

The makers of the movie thus imagine Isabel as both admirably independent and ingenuously optimistic. In these respects, their view of her has much in common with that of Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan), Isabel's ailing cousin, who watches as she rejects two eligible bachelors and so decides (though she does not really know it) to withhold his own testimony of love. Ralph chooses instead to allow himself the spectacle of watching Isabel take on Europe, where the Touchetts live and where the young American girl has already arrived with dreams in tow by the time the picture begins. (This is not the case in the novel, but Campion is not interested in Isabel's home life in New York.) Donovan turns in such a subtle, natural, and perfectly reserved performance that you may not recognize, as he speaks with his own fatally ill father (John Gielgud), that he is persuading the old man to leave Isabel a lion's share of the Touchett fortune. The ramifications for Isabel's life are huge, since she will now have the power to travel wherever and whenever she elects, and it is a quintessentially Jamesian touch that such a profound adjustment of her circumstances plays out both in strikingly unassuming fashion and completely without the knowledge of Isabel herself. She and the other surviving Touchetts assume that the dying patriarch merely held a soft spot for this young and attractive dame. Ralph does not admit to his role because he wants to control the "experiment" of Isabel's coming of age without throwing undue attention on himself. In the purest sense, he only wants to watch.

Even more Jamesian, however, is the tenet that Americans travelling abroad are in way over their heads, destined to be "enlightened" by an old world of artifice and seduction that will also manipulate, confuse, and consume them. Like Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, Isabel walks right into the hands of a man and a woman (though they are not currently lovers) who conspire together to direct Isabel's fate along their own dark course. One of these, the more fascinating of the two, is Barbara Hershey's Madame Merle, a permanent expatriate who has picked up the taste and the wisdom but also the affectations of many a European culture. She was born an American and represents, the movie suggests, a negative-case scenario of what becomes of New World women like Isabel who embark on high-minded journeys without the moral or emotional defenses required for protection. Merle is a beautiful and accomplished woman, but she is fundamentally alone, spiritually moorless, and subsequently apt to make her own fun by toying with the happiness of others. She is like the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, only more dependent on her charm and her intellect since she lacks the wealth or accompanying power to realize her capricious and sinister projects.

The second half of this Scylla and Charybdis is an art collector living in Florence named Gilbert Osmond, whose enactment by John Malkovich further foregrounds the parallels to Frears' Dangerous Liaisons. Shut away in a villa cluttered with his baubles and artifacts, Osmond is a sort of vampire just waiting for the kind of prey Isabel represents: loaded with money, enamored of art, vulnerable to anything or anyone who seems worldly, civilized, and independent of rule-bound society. Like nearly everything else in Isabel's life, we know about Gilbert's ulterior motives before she does, in no small part because no one played by John Malkovich is likely to make your life easy. Possibly the least generous of our major actors, not to mention the most given to self-parody, Malkovich is the only performer in Campion's large and distinguished cast who often tips the picture too far into Gothic horror and near-pathological strangeness. The moment where he brays like a donkey feels shockingly out of place; a bit where he terrorizes Kidman by scratching his beard against her forehead is like Gaslight played by King Kong.

So, yes, Gilbert seems like bad news from the get-go. It is not, however, inadmissible to understand The Portrait of a Lady, as Campion does, to be the story of a woman who believes knowledge and nourishment only come from an ordeal. The challenges of foreign travel are imposing enough, but young, single Isabel embraces them whole-heartedly. The proposals of Warburton and American suitor Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen) offer lifetime security, but Isabel declines them. Why would she, then, necessarily spurn Gilbert's offer of marriage just because he seems to be a difficult and insincere man? Might she not imagine him to gain potentially as much from her spiritual influence as from the deepness of her pockets? Idealistic marriages have never, sadly, been out of style, and it is easy to see why Campion with her modern sensibility perceives Isabel, even criticizes her, as an unwisely ambitious young woman who fails to recognize that Gilbert's dilettantism and coldness are more likely to diminish her happiness than to feed or even flourish beneath it.

One problem with The Portrait of a Lady, though, is that it begins to feel a little long and a little crowded as Kidman and Malkovich's marriage grows more antagonistic and other couples around them are also beleaguered. Primary among these are Pansy and Edward, Gilbert's 15-year-old daughter and the hotheaded, impatient suitor whom she loves. Played by Artemisia's Valentina Cervi and Empire of the Sun's Christian Bale, these two young lovers could be the subject of their own movie, so star-crossed is their union and so carefully watched and regulated by every adult who surrounds them. Even in Laura Jones' potent trimming-down of James' novel, some elements like this one are indispensable to the story, though its articulation is far more compressed within and intrusive upon a 2½-hour picture than on a 500-page novel. Also, though Campion and Dryburgh are magicians, and production and costume designer Janet Patterson is hardly less gifted, the somber chilliness of Isabel's world is as disheartening and oppressive to experience as it is necessary to the coherence of Campion's vision.

As you see, then, the detriments of The Portrait of a Lady are usually the small but unavoidable side-effects of a fearsomely confident and elegantly well-crafted picture. The decisions and interpretations made by Campion's cast and crew are so bold and well-orchestrated that you sometimes want to cheer the vividness of a single shot, the humor of a fleeting detail. The sound and the photography give Europe from the beginning the echo and the darkness of a mausoleum. It is clear to us, if not to Isabel, what an uphill battle to enlightenment she began when she set foot on this redoubtable soil. Henrietta Stackpole (Mary Louise Parker), the snooty journalist friend who arrives to join in on a segment of Isabel's trip, steals rolls from a hotel breakfast table; her bag is embroidered with the motto, "Waste not, want not." Isabel impulsively smells her shoe while removing it after a long day of walking. She also keeps on the inside of a cabinet small scraps of paper on which she has written new words she has discovered. One of the terms she has recently taught herself as the picture begins is "nihilism."

Finally, the sizable and brilliantly diverse cast works with great force and assuredness under Campion's hand. Kidman proves that To Die For was no fluke with an equally adept turn in a project of almost completely different genre and tone. She remains a more intuitive actress than a technically proficient one, but her emotional and compassionate approach are a wonderfully effective ballast for a film that elsewhere emphasizes form and design. Kidman is asked to do physical work—struggling with male suitors, crying on cue—far beyond what we have seen her do before, and she commands our attention throughout. Even more galvanizing is Barbara Hershey, who announces again what almost every major world director seems to know but the rest of us have been slow to acknowledge: she is a great actress, connecting deeply with Merle's sadness and anger without either shrinking from or overplaying her affectedly "European" accents and conceits. A tense conversation in the rain between Isabel and Merle toward the picture's end is as vibrant a duel as the 1996 Christmas season has shown us.

If none of these performances finally achieves the fullness or seismic force of those in The Piano, who is complaining? The level of intimacy achieved by that film's cast has rarely been equalled in a modern picture. Besides, Campion does seem aware throughout that The Portrait of a Lady is her retelling of someone else's story, not a child of her own muscular and free-ranging imagination. The terse visual wit, improbable angles, and noticeably female slant of Portrait make it hard to ignore that she is the director, and in fact Campion herself could be called the star of this movie.

There is a scene in the film's middle third when most of the principals attend a cotillion ball; the scene is saved from its Merchant-Ivory-bred familiarity by several shots in which Campion shows us the women who faint from the weight of their gowns and the tightness of their corsets. You come away from this sequence, and from this movie, with the feeling that you have seen predictable events made fresh and more spirited by a visionary filmmaker. The movie is long and grand, and you shouldn't bother with it if you want merely to dote on a sympathetic heroine, or on a decorator's dream of fin-de-si?cle opulence. See The Portrait of a Lady, though, if you are in the mood for a dense and fantastically complex story, recast in the perspective of a woman who sees as other moviemakers—indeed, other artists, or observers of any sort—rarely do. Grade: A

(in January 1997: A–)

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress: Barbara Hershey
Best Costume Design: Janet Patterson

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress: Barbara Hershey

Other Awards:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (Hershey); Best Production Design (Janet Patterson; tie)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Hershey); Best Supporting Actor (Donovan; tie)

Permalink Home 1996 ABC Blog E-Mail