The Portrait of a Lady

The difference between Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and Jane Campion’s version can be summed up in a quick early exchange between the heroine, Isabel Archer, and her failing uncle, Mr. Touchett. In the book, the old man tells Isabel she is beautiful; Isabel blushes and laughs, “Oh yes, of course, I’m lovely!” with cheerful, self-deprecating irony. In the movie, Isabel responds with those same words, but Nicole Kidman delivers the line with numb, sarcastic self-disgust.

Campion is at it again. In adapting Portrait, she has turned James’ complex, enchanting heroine into the basic Jane Campion model: a defiantly inexpressive, sexually repressed drudge with really bad hair. A look at Campion’s previous work (Sweetie, the excellent An Angel at My Table, and The Piano) confirms that her vision is remarkably consistent in its sour masochist-feminism. The men in her films are dolts who rob independent women of their spirit. Yet Campion does the same thing; she creates hollow heroines and then blames men for it.

This isn’t a political objection but a dramatic one. Campion, it’s clear by now, has no aptitude for narrative. Her great gift — what draws me to her work and makes it hard to dismiss — is her unearthly way with imagery. Campion and her superb cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, paint their stark pictures with colors I’ve never seen before. Portrait of a Lady ties with The English Patient as 1996’s most delicious eye-candy.

Campion wrote the script with Laura Jones, who wrote Campion’s best film, An Angel at My Table. About a reel into Portrait, I wished that Jones had worked alone. Was it her idea to open the movie with those excruciatingly pretentious shots of modern women posing in a forest? From there, the film skips across the text and lands on Isabel rejecting a marriage proposal from Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant). We also meet Warburton’s consumptive friend, Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan, looking and sounding exactly like Christopher Walken circa 1978), and Isabel’s persistent, unwelcome suitor Caspar (Viggo Mortensen).

The movie gives Isabel a choice of the lesser of three weasels. Except for Ralph, who is dying and therefore acceptable, the men are unpleasant little creeps — pathetic. The third weasel is Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), the pompous slacker artist Isabel marries, for reasons known only to her and Campion. Gilbert, a worm who enjoys feeling superior to his miserable wife, is an art-house version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, with a hint of Malkovich’s villain in Dangerous Liaisons; he schemes with Isabel’s friend Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey in the film’s only enjoyable performance) to enslave Isabel’s soul.

In all, Jane Campion has pulled off a neat trick here — she’s made a film that makes Henry James’ work seem positively giddy. The movie drowns in simmering rage and loathing, and Nicole Kidman, under her ugly valentine hairdo, radiates enough depressed victimhood to fill a year’s worth of women’s weepies. Campion’s harshly gorgeous images can’t redeem her smug, self-congratulating faux-feminism. Oh yes, of course, it’s lovely.

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