UK – NZ / 1996
Writer: Laura Jones, based on the novel by Henry James / Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Mary Louise Parker, Martin Donovan, Shelley Winters, Richard E Grant, Shelley Duvall, John Gielgud
Following on from the critical and financial success of The Piano, Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady is a costume drama stripped to its dramatic essentials. Denuded, to the director’s credit, of the manicured frippery and nostalgia of Merchant Ivory productions, it is a period piece laid bare.
It is a compelling film of immaculate detail, with scriptwriter Laura Jones not so much adapting Henry James’ intense novel as digesting it and skilfully reinterpreting it as a tale of an innocent woman’s journey of self-discovery, her descent into darkness and her entrapment within the confines of a repressed and claustrophobic society. Campion’s film may be a reinterpretation but, as the Observer said: “It is to Campion’s credit that she has produced a clean un-melodramatic narrative…” that stays faithful to James’ original.
Campion’s film tells the tale of Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), a young American socialite finding her way in the sophisticated circles of late 19th-century Europe. Bright and beautiful, the wilful Isabel captures the imagination of many would-be suitors, including her cousin Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan). Secretly terrified by her own erotic impulses, Isabel yearns for more than her suitors can give, a struggling free spirit confined within the conventions of polite European society.
Ill-advised by Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey in a role that saw her nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), Isabel is drawn to the dark-souled Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), whom she marries. Trapped in this fast-souring, claustrophobic marriage she seems to accept her unreasonable fate. Campion sees James’ Isabel doomed to failure and wilful self-destruction in a tale of failed romantic trysts and misplaced passions in a world of weighty ballgowns, stifling corsets and starchy manners. Kidman is remarkable as Isabel, both for the range of her performance – her transformation from an impulsive young woman to a wary sophisticate – and for the cacophony of emotions she brings to every moment.