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From the opening frames of The Portrait of a Lady, it is apparent that this is to be no timid, reverential adaptation of the 1881 Henry James masterpiece. Over a blank screen, we hear the voices of several women - the first of whom sounds suspiciously like the film's star, Nicole Kidman - expressing their views on romance, the longing for intimacy and that delicious moment just before a kiss. Then, as the opening credits begin to roll, we see (but do not hear) an assortment of young ladies in modern dress, lying in the grass, lounging by a tree, dancing to the private music of a Walkman. Seconds later, we find ourselves on an English estate in 1872.
By contrasting the images of today's woman with the decidedly old-fashioned sentiments of the voice-over, director Jane Campion not only alludes to the contemporary resonance of this hundred-year-old tale, but with this bold stamp she lays claim to the story that follows as wholly her own.
Jamesian fanatics are bound to be less pleased by the results than the Campionistas in the audience. The inherently unsubtle visual vocabulary of film would appear incompatible with the work of James, an author who never met a nuance he couldn't belabor. Although his basic story line remains intact, gone from his 500-plus-page novel is the author's obsessive examination of its characters' psychological minutiae. Instead, we are offered an opulently photographed, densely textured and ultimately tragic story of love among the idle rich.
The lady in question is 23-year-old American Isabel Archer (a luminously confident Kidman). Everyone, it seems, loves Isabel, not only for her beauty but for her intellect and headstrong independence. No sooner has she arrived at Gardencourt, the English country home of her uncle and aunt Touchett (John Gielgud and Shelley Winters) than she is turning down the marriage proposal of their neighbor Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), despite his offer of "plenty of houses" for her to choose from. This latest proposal comes shortly after Isabel has turned down the stubborn Bostonian Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), who has now pursued her across the Atlantic. Add to this mix her sickly and saintly cousin Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan), who is also secretly in love with the remarkable Miss Archer. Although the chief symptom of his consumption would appear to be an inability to wash his hair, he insists on removing himself from competition for her affections because of his illness.
Why such reluctance to marry any of these beaus, each of whom would make a more than adequate husband? It's certainly not from lack of sexual chemistry, it is implied, in a scene in which Isabel fantasizes a menage a quatre, with all three lovers swirling around her as they each kiss various body parts. Rather it is, as James wrote, her "vast designs." Long before the advent of the personal growth industry, she has decided that she must see the world and enrich herself before settling down. Marrying well is of secondary importance.
How convenient, then, that she suddenly comes into a considerable fortune upon the death of old Mr. Touchett, a fortune that will enable her to realize her dreams of travel and self-improvement. And how strange it is that, during her first stop in Rome, she suddenly renounces her newfound independence by succumbing to the charms of the manipulative aesthete Gilbert Osmond. Although John Malkovich plays Osmond with methodical malevolence, his power seems insufficient to sway someone of Isabel's strength of character, even someone as obviously naive as she.
Here is the one weak link in Campion's chain. Without James's excruciating exploration of the inside of Isabel's head, the film is unable to explain why she would change her plans and marry at all, let alone to someone so obviously money-grubbing and heartless as the odious Osmond. Although Barbara Hershey is wickedly, suavely devious as Madame Merle, his accomplice in seduction, the terrible pleasure of watching Isabel get sucked by Osmond's evil tractor beam into a loveless marriage is marred by our inability to understand its causes. It's a little like watching the protagonist of a horror film walk into the basement where you know that Jason is lurking.
Where Campion succeeds best is in realizing that her strengths lie not in the cerebral but in the sensual. In Isabel Archer, Campion masterfully reveals a woman overwhelmed by her senses - by the delicious smell of a rain-soaked sleeve, the raucous din of a street performance, the dramatic silhouette of trees at twilight. When Osmond first presses his blank, affectless face against hers in a forceful though calculatedly tender kiss, Isabel can almost be forgiven for confusing the rush of sensation for love.
By the time our heroine realizes her folly, she is trapped in her gilded cage. In The Portrait of a Lady, images of imprisonment abound: a bee under glass, horses in a stable, a row of barred gates. Campion's (and Henry James') message is this: If freedom means the ability to choose, it also insists on the inevitability of living with the consequences of one's choices. Having made one wrong decision, Isabel is corseted by social propriety from ever experiencing happiness again.
When Isabel is called to the deathbed of her cousin Ralph, she has an epiphany of sorts, discovering at last where true love lies. Unfortunately, it is too late for her to take advantage of his stoical, selfless love, or to run to the ever-patient arms of Caspar Goodwood. But unlike the richly ambiguous denouement of the book, Campion's closing feels abrupt and just plain confusing. It is to her credit, though, that she has resisted the revisionist Hollywood temptation to improve great works of literature by giving them happy endings. She is too honest an artist for that, remaining faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the book.