by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Portrait of a Lady

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 10 January 1997


Directed by Jane Campion. New Zealand, U.K., U.S.

Vivacious, pretty, intelligent and charming, Henry James's heroine Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) has a bevy of admirers, as did the author's cousin Minny Temple, who inspired the fictional character and died of tuberculosis at 24. So determined is Isabel to make her own way in life that she turns down an American dream proposal from eminently suitable and bankable Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant). After inheriting a fortune of her own from her uncle Mr. Touchett (John Gielgud), Isabel goes to Italy where, with some prompting from her sinister new friend Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), she falls into the clutches of the dilettante, manipulative scoundrel Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), who marries her for her money. Osmond's vile treatment of Isabel and his illegitimate daughter, Pansy (Valentina Crevi), and Isabel's determination to remain loyal nonetheless, form the heart of James's drama. Campion, whose 'An Angel at My Table' and 'The Piano' established her international reputation, has clearly approached this adaptation of James's classic early novel, expensively shot on location in England and Italy, with tremendous earnestness, preserving much of James's dialogue. What they have failed to convey on film is the author's subtle and gripping psychological analysis. Consequently, we simply don't get to know Isabel sufficiently to understand what makes her tick, and ultimately remain baffled as to how she could have fallen for such an obvious phony and rotter as Osmond in the first place. Also alienating are the overused gloom-laden lighting effects, gimmicks such as slow-motion, and a cringe-making, anachronistic fantasy sequence where Isabel's suitors make love to her simultaneously, which uses special effects reminiscent of 'Ghostbusters.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023