The Portrait of a Lady
[rating: 2 of 4 stars]
directed by Jane Campion
starring Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey
The official Web site for The Portrait of a Lady: www.polygram.com
After her work on The Piano, I expected more from Jane Campion's adaptation of Henry James' classic novel The Portrait of a Lady. Even with Nicole Kidman (who I loved in To Die For), John Malkovich (one of the finest American actors), and Barbara Hershey (a consistently fine and underrated actress) all on hand, The Portrait of a Lady emerges as a curiously muted affair that remains distant and aloof and never generates much passion or suspense. James' masterwork of fiction becomes an absolutely mystifying movie, where characters, particularly Kidman's Isabel Archer, become enigmas.
Isabel yearns for more than the ordinary. She refuses a marriage offer by a well-to-do man with a seat in parliament and several houses to live in. "I refused because he was too perfect," she says. "I don't wish to be a mere sheep in the flock." A friend asks her, "Do you know where you're going?" And Isabel says, "No, and I find it very pleasing not to know." However, the movie never makes a convincing argument for her settling down and marrying Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), who becomes simply a purely evil character, intent on completely controlling Isabel. Because the movie spends so much time on her relationship with Osmond (and Madam Merle's involvement), this relationship must be convincing or the movie doesn't work. But their relationship never becomes particularly compelling or involving.
The Portrait of a Lady is filled with cold characters, cold performances, and cold but gorgeous camera work. It's sort of like watching a glacier melt: it might be beautiful, but it's less than exciting.