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The Portrait of a Lady is a marriage of opposites, a potent joining of the dispassionate psychological complexity of the novelist admirers called the Master and an assured and assertive director who relishes the intensity film provides. Like many relationships, it sounds improbable but it succeeds.
The redoubtable Henry James, whose nearly 600-page novel was published in 1881, does not readily translate to the screen. Aside from The Innocents, a Deborah Kerr-starring version of The Turn of the Screw, the most memorable attempt is The Heiress, an adaptation of the novella Washington Square that stars Montgomery Clift, Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson and is nearly half a century old.
Jane Campion, on the other hand, as her success with The Piano shows, is completely modern in sensibility with a vigorous gift for cinema and the ability to make any kind of story completely her own. This Portrait of a Lady and its melancholy tale of emotional manipulation and despair belongs as much to her as to James, a situation that may upset the author's devotees but will not be noticed by viewers who haven't made the novel's acquaintance.
Written by fellow Australian Laura Jones (who also wrote Campion's earlier An Angel at My Table and the Gillian Armstrong-directed High Tide), this Portrait is determined to see Isabel Archer, the book's celebrated heroine here played by Nicole Kidman, as a modern woman. As Jones' script states on its opening page, "she could be today's girl, but happens to live in 1870."
This is not as much of a stretch as it may seem. Though such Jamesian strands as the conflict between American innocence and European experience are not pressing concerns today, other themes - like the plight and status of women in male-dominated societies - are issues that have hardly gone away.
To Isabel Archer, newly arrived in England, Europe is not the old country but the promised land. Invited over from America by her wealthy uncle Mr. Touchett (John Gielgud) and his wife (Shelley Winters), she is oblivious to the importance of form and ritual, the duplicity and artifice that make up so much of the business of continental society.
Rather Isabel is so taken with life's possibilities that she preemptively turns down a marriage proposal from the completely eligible Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant) just as she had turned one down from his American counterpart Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen).
Instead of marrying, Isabel wants to throw herself into the world in search of meaning and danger. Headstrong and assertive, she likes the sense of not knowing what lies ahead and fiercely tells one and all that "it's not my fate to give up." But this determined sense of purpose aside, as a young woman alone Isabel is more innocent and more at risk than she knows.
Much taken with this combination of naivete and spunk is Isabel's cousin Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan). A consumptive who is too rich and too ill to work, Ralph arranges with his father for Isabel to inherit a considerable sum of money, enough to make her bright plans for the future a possibility.
Also attracted to Isabel Archer is the enigmatic Madame Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey), a worldly wise American friend of Mrs. Touchett's whose own dreams have come to so little she insists "a woman, it seems to me, has no natural place anywhere."
Madame Merle determines, for reasons that only gradually become clear, to introduce Isabel to her own great friend in Florence, Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), an imposing aesthete considered to be "the incarnation of taste." A widower with a daughter being raised in a convent, Osmond is an icy man who uses words like daggers, but to Isabel "the beauty of his opinions" cancels his other sins.
It is this symbiosis between a headstrong naif who is not as clever as she thinks and these bloodless co-conspirators that Portrait of a Lady details. It's a psychological horror story, with an overmatched heroine in as much mortal danger as any of Dracula's potential victims, a story told here with spareness, strength and precision.
Though Portrait's satisfactions don't have much to do with surprise, the argument could be made that the performances of the two leads could use some fine-tuning. Kidman is the picture of clarity, purpose and single-minded intelligence as Isabel, but also colder than she perhaps needs to be. The same is true for Malkovich, whose previous screen history makes him too obviously villainous too soon.
Yet despite this the effectiveness of Portrait of a Lady is impressive. Campion has put together a strong visual team of previous collaborators, including cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, production and costume designer Janet Patterson and editor Veronika Jenet. And she has added a diverse and impressive cast and her own capacity for vivid filmmaking, for joining arresting images to a knack for conveying intensity on screen.
And though Campion is inevitably no less than the co-star of her movies, she also can, as she did with Holly Hunter in The Piano, coax the performance of a lifetime out of actors. Here the beneficiary is Hershey, who does magnificent work as the anguished, manipulative, unhappy Madame Merle. The rest of The Portrait of a Lady may not be up to this high standard, but it is never less than absorbing either.