Judge Clark Douglas' novel Stick Figure of a Lady received terrible reviews.
"I'm rather ashamed of my plans. I make a new one everyday."
After gaining increasing attention with the release of each new film, director Jane Campion was given an opportunity to become an A-list director. Her passionate, distinctive efforts Sweetie, An Angel at My Table and The Piano impressed a host of folks across Hollywood, and she was easily able to acquire a high-profile cast for her lavish adaptation of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. Unfortunately, the film was a curiously detached, surprisingly uninvolving experience that only flirted with being the sort of recklessly compelling drama she was clearly capable of delivering.
Our story, of course, follows James' famed heroine Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut), who rejects the advances of the wealthy Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant, Withnail and I) in favor of pursuing her own path. Isabel also gently brushes aside her impassioned American suitor Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence), but eventually falls prey to the seductive techniques of the slimy Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich, Dangerous Liasons). With alarming speed, we watch Isabel's dreams of being an independent woman rapidly disintegrate.
There are a handful of fleeting moments that indicate just how remarkable and innovative The Portrait of a Lady could have been. The film's opening credits features numerous close-ups of modern women, gazing into the camera with Mona Lisa smiles. As the credits conclude, a similar shot of Kidman's face appears and our tale begins. It's hard not to recall the line, "There are eight million stories in the naked city, and this has been one of them." Another moment sees Isabel stepping into frantic film footage that appears to have come from the earliest days of talkies, and a handful of other energetic visual flourishes suggest a particularly daring take on the material lurking beneath the surface.
Alas, the film we actually get is a rather flat effort. Yes, Campion certainly indulges in a bit of revisionism, but it's of a particularly dull variety which does more to harm the material than freshen it. Osmond is meant to be a smooth operator who (along with the villainous Madame Merle—expertly played by Barbara Hershey, Hoosiers) hatches a subtle plan to rob Isabel of both her freedom and wealth, but Malkovich is so blatantly sleazy from the outset that it becomes impossible to believe that Isabel would ever fall for this creep. Unless, as Roger Ebert suggests, this version of Isabel is actually a masochist, but such a notion is ineffectively backed by the rest of film. This Isabel doesn't seem a tragic figure so much as a foolish one, and Kidman's performance is an atypically uncertain turn that doesn't provide the character with much definition.
The cast is filled with hugely talented people, but Campion seems to have fallen prey to the trap of allowing a prestigious literary adaptation to feel more like a staged reading than its own living, breathing thing. When the likes of Kidman, Christian Bale, Mary-Louise Parker and Viggo Mortensen all manage to seem uncomfortable and clunky, there's something terribly wrong. Other performances don't seem stiff, but do seem misguided: Malkovich's character is simply an amalgam of his other, better villains, while Martin Donovan can't find a way to successfully convey his character's profound inner yearning. Still, great credit should be given to Hershey for seeming so vital in a film so sapped of life (and was deservedly rewarded with an Oscar nomination for her efforts) and to Sir John Gielgud for nailing a marvelously unique death scene.
The DVD transfer is respectable enough, and the film is certainly always a pleasure to look at. Campion and her team nail the assorted locations the film explores, from the upper-class ballroom dances to the humble monasteries. The image can be a bit soft at times, but part of that is attributable to the gauzy look Campion gives the film. The film's low-key palette is conveyed effectively, and flesh tones look natural. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track highlights Wojciech Kilar's excellent original score very well, and most of the dialogue is well-captured despite a few stray lines that seem a bit distant. Supplements are limited to a making-of featurette and a trailer.
Despite its numerous promising moments, The Portrait of a Lady ultimately proves to be a disappointingly dusty literary adaptation. It's neither Campion's best film nor her worst, but it's her least memorable effort.
This portrait could use a brush-up.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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