Leave it to New Zealand director Jane Campion (The Piano, Angel at My Table) to begin an adaptation of Henry James's great novel (set in the late 1800s) with a group of late-20th-century women from Down Under talking about... more » the importance of a kiss. Like any good film adaptation (and it's a very good one, indeed), this exquisitely framed and mounted Portrait of a Lady is at least as much Campion as it is James. The story of strong-willed, independent-minded Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman, whose skin here is photographed like delicate porcelain) is a tricky one to dramatize, since it's largely about good intentions going awry, roads not taken, misguided decisions made for good reasons. Headstrong American orphan Isabel rejects the proposal of a decent, sensible English suitor, Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), because she wants to find her own destiny and identity first. Instead, she is seduced by Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), an effete collector of art (and women) whom one character describes as a "sterile dilettante." How Isabel's life, and the lives of those who love her, are affected by this fateful (but irreversible?) decision is what the bulk of the film is about. Portrait of a Lady is lovely, heartbreaking, and at times terrifying--as only coming face-to-face with the consequences of one's own life-changing decisions can be. Gorgeously photographed in anamorphic widescreen format. --Jim Emerson« less
"Nicole Kidman IS Isabel Archer! I don't understand why some reviewers here panned her acting as bad. She has never looked more beautiful than in this film. Her acting is also superb and expressive.This is the story about a young American woman (Isabel) who is just orphaned and is invited to stay with her rich relatives, the Touchetts in Victorian England. While in England, she is wooed by the rich Lord Warburton but she rejects his proposal because she wants to see the world and be free. When her uncle later dies, Isabel inherits a big sum of money and becomes truly rich and "independent". It is actually her cousin, the consumptive Ralph Touchett (who is secretly in love with her) who pressed his father to leave the money to Isabel without Isabel's knowledge. By this time, Isabel has met the scheming and mysterious Madame Merle (who plays Schubert on the piano most beautifully, I must add). M. Merle introduces Isabel to "her friend", Gilbert Osmond, a poor and widowed American staying in Italy who has a young daughter, Pansy. Both M. Merle and Osmond scheme to make Isabel marry Osmond so that he could have her money. Isabel innocently falls into their trap. Despite advice and dissuasions from her relatives, she eagerly marries Osmond and her life after that becomes a true nightmare. There is also a sub-plot involving Pansy's impossible love affair with Ned Rossum (played by Christian Bale).The accompanying booklet of the DVD provides valuable information on the making of the film and the cast profile e.g. the fact that Jane Campion finds this to be her hardest project. From the movie, it is easy to see that she had put in tremendous effort to bring Henry James' classic to life. Every shot, every scene and every movement of the characters is carefully and beautifully directed and filmed. The colors are so rich, the seem to jump out of the screen! And oh, the gorgeous costumes - especially Isabel Archer's!The casting is also perfect - notably, Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich who plays the villain, Osmond. Martin Donovan also embraces the difficult role of "Ralph Touchett" perfectly. My favourite scene is the one nearing the end involving a sobbing, heart-broken Isabel by the bedside of the dying Ralph. It is here that she realizes she loves him. This scene is so tender to watch. To me, this film showcases Nicole Kidman's best performance and it is THIS particular scene that clinches it.I got my copy of the DVD from Amazon.co.uk. If you love period dramas, this is a worthy title to have in your collection. Get the original soundtrack too - the music is absolutely gorgeous and dreamy, and is a fond favourite of mine."
More appropriation than adaptation
Steven Reynolds | Sydney, Australia | 05/09/2003
(3 out of 5 stars)
"This adaptation of Henry James' technically innovative but infamously dense novel is interesting primarily because director Jane Campion seems to have entirely missed the point. She's mistaken Isabel Archer for a "romance addict" rather than the naive idealist James created. Perhaps aiming for wider appeal, she tries to turn this from the portrait of a unique female personality into a more general exploration of "women in love". Such universalizing might have worked if she and screenwriter Laura Jones had also had the wherewithal to change the story to suit their modified heroine. But having ditched the most critical aspect of the novel, they then remain reasonably faithful to its flow of events, with Isabel choosing an ugly, "sterile dilettante" (Malkovich) over a handsome lover and a rich English lord (Mortensen and Grant respectively) both of whom are infatuated with her. For Isabel the "naive idealist", such a choice is perfectly understandable. For Isabel the "romance addict", and women in general, such a choice beggars belief. So this not only fails as an adaptation, it fails as a convincing narrative in its own right. Screenwriting devotees might be drawn to it wondering just how Jones will convey Isabel's famous interiority without resorting to voiceover. The answer is simple: she ignores it in the writing (with the exception of one inspired fantasy sequence) and leaves most of it to performance. The result is that Kidman spends more than half the film in incomprehensible tears. The novel's Isabel cries once in 600 pages. For all that, this film is still not without reward: the performances from the near-ensemble cast are universally marvellous, the settings and costumes exquisite, and the music and cinematography are a perfect match for it all. There's no doubting Campion's skill as a director; I just doubt her interpretation of the source material."
Jane Campion's underated masterpiece
Jacques COULARDEAU | 06/21/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This movie was completely slagged off by US audiences, which just further illustrates the disaster that is American cinema. The Portrait of A Lady is brilliant film-making. It is a movie full of complex characters, divided emotions and intense drama. Most American's just don't get it. Campion's decision to begin the film in modern day with a series of women talking about love proves that not much has changed since Henry James wrote the classic novel on which the film is based. The film follows closely to James' story: Isabel Archer (Kidman in her finest role) comes to England to visit relatives and winds up inheriting a fortune. She falls under the spell of Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey deserved an Oscar)who introduces her to the sinister Gilbert Osmand (Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons mode)who simply wants her money and another beauty to add to his art collection. Isabel rejects a number of suitors in her quest to be an independent woman. She claims to her smitten cousin that she will never marry, but falls under the spell of Osmond. There are scenes of horror and heartbreak here, imaginative moments such as Isabel's "travelogue" through Europe as she begins to obsess over Osmond's entreaty that "I find myself absolutely in love with you." The supporting cast lead by Martin Donovan, Christian Bale, Shelly Winters, Shelly Duval and the priceless Mary-Louise Parker are superb. The much discussed final scene (which for some reason people don't understand) is a fabulous coda to this film. It mirrors an earlier scene when Isabel refused the proposal of Lord Warburton, and now finds herself in the same situation with her American suitor. Isabel runs toward the house, but rather than going inside, she turns back and the image freezes. Isabel is reconsidering the proposal of a man who truly loves her. What people don't like, obviously, is that we don't see her run back to his arms and tearfully say yes as the screen fades to black. We see Isabel caught in a moment of change and decision. This haunting final image is superb. Get a clue, people."
SOMEWHAT SPLAYED-OUT BUT GORGEOUS RETELLING OF THE CLASSIC
Shashank Tripathi | Gadabout | 11/14/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"At about two and a half hours, Jane Campion tinkers at the bare threshold of monotony with this gorgeous period-piece, but she seldom falters in her ability to make her leading roles (The Piano, Sweetie) hypnotically compelling for all of their mulishness and tenacity.
Much has already been said about Malkovich and Kidman, both of whom I find were good if not superb, and Barbara Hershey, who brings just the right flavour of deviousness to her character. So I will focus instead on some common criticisms of this film.
Reviewers lament Campion's psychological simplifications of the theme, or her ungenerous treatment of Isabel as a sufferer of false consciousness who walks blindly into her own trap. On the contrary, I think the director is both adventurous and above-board in stating her revisionist projects from the very opening frame.
Henry James lived in the 1880s. His original work was intended as an exploration of what a woman might do if she were given independent means, and his story indicted women as being trapped by a weaker nature.
Exploring the same material Campion comes to a different, more ambiguous, but IMHO, also more interesting conclusion. She prefers to establish the film largely as Isabel's subjective experience, not as the story told by some omniscient narrator on whose shoulders falls the onus of proof. This is evidenced, for instance, by a sequence at the beginning where Isabel imagines making love with three different men at the same time.
For all its occasional flaws the film is at least internally consistent and proves to me yet again that Campion possesses cinematic imagination in spades. From her comes some of the boldest use of lighting and Black & White interludes I have seen in modern cinema.
Net net, don't let the negative reviews put you off, this is a very heart-warming experience even if a languorous one. Recommended rental for sure."
Love and Freedom don't go together
Jacques COULARDEAU | OLLIERGUES France | 12/27/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Henry James was realistic about women at the end of the 19th century, particularly those standing between the US and Great Britain. Isabel is such a woman. She gets into the world without any parents but with a tremendously good uncle and cousin. She is surrounded with men who love her and want to marry her out of love. She refuses them, three of them, to be able to see the world. And she falls in the hands of a social climber, a social parasite and a fortune hunter who covers up his liaison with the woman who introduced her to him, and whose daughter is the out-of-wedlock child of this very woman. She is of course deeply unhappy, alone, brutalized too, and yet she tries to save the daughter from her fate. She fails because the daughter is totally under the tyrannical authority of her father, an authority that is tyrannical only because the daughter accepts it and submits to it, particularly because of the teachings of some good Catholic nuns. Finally Isabel finds the energy to escape - for a while at least - from that husband when she learns his liaison and she can force him to accept. But she is so pent up in her stubborn decision that she can never step back and consider a real escape. Yet, maybe, at the end, there is a wavering touch of hope - for her. It is incredible how this woman, who wants to be strong-headed and independent, fails to see the men who love her and to recognize the man who uses her. As it is said in the film somewhere, Americans cannot become Europeans, and yet Isabel succeeds very well in becoming twisted and thwarted in Europe. Is that typically European ? Maybe. Nicole Kidman plays the role with style, delicacy, dainty and quaint nuances, but also with a tremendous amount of gusto, sentiment, feeling and emotion. She is probably ten times better than she had ever been, now she can measure herself with actors that are not stereotyped. Her freedom is probably the key to her present depth. Is the film a metaphor of her life ? Maybe. But who cares. What is important is that this Nicole Kidman is able to bring us such a marvellous masterpiece, though some of the « special effects » (strange camera angles and mirror effects) could have been avoided to reach a more intense purity.Dr Jacques COULARDEAU"