‘The Portrait of a Lady’ Review
September 14, 2013 2 Comments
The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
<<This review may contain minor spoilers>>
Directed by Jane Campion (‘The Piano’ (1993)), ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ is an adaptation of Henry James classic novel of the same name. It tells a story of a young, beautiful, free-thinking and intelligent young woman, Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) who comes to England from United States with her aunt, Mrs Touchett, to ‘explore the world’. While on her quest Miss Archer rejects the promising marriage proposals coming from a wealthy American tradesman, Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), and immensely rich heir, Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), because she is devoted to the ideals of personal freedom and ceaseless pursuit of knowledge. With the help of her faithful but ill cousin Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan) Isabel is made rich through her uncle’s will. With mountains of wealth to fall back on Isabel is then free to pursuit her dreams of independence through travel. However, when Isabel strikes up friendship with amiable and cultured Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey) she is far from suspecting that this acquaintance would lead to her unhappy marriage with an elusive middle aged art collector, Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich).
‘The Portrait of a Lady’ is a beautiful picture, which is nicely photographed and makes good use of location. The soundtrack of the film, e.g. outstanding pieces composed by Schubert, conveys subtlety and beauty. Nicole Kidman does a good job portraying Isabel Archer as an independent and free-spirited woman who is determined to lead a life which is quite unconventional for a woman at that time. Barbara Hershey gives a terrific performance as Madame Merle. She manages a very convincing portrayal of a kind and cultured woman who labours dark secrets, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award 1997 for her role.
However, I could not help but wonder at Laura Jones’s script to this film. Jones has written scripts for ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ (1997) and ‘Possession’ (2002). Both of these films can be known for their length (they are long) and uneventful plots. But it is not that which bothered me in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. It seems that Jones decided to ignore the first half of Henry James’s novel. The first part contains the early distinct intellectual and spiritual development of Isabel, interesting parts in the book which shed light on Isabel’s future decision-making and life choices. So, the film starts off with Lord Warburton making proposal of marriage to Isabel (which does not happen until nearly half-way through the book). And even if we ignore that, the film makes little attempt to show complex thought-processes or emotions of the characters, or even provide some thought-provoking elements to the story, which the book does successfully on nearly every page.
It may be very difficult to convey to the screen all the thought and feelings of the characters, and their complex evolving relationships, but surely it is unpardonable to march out with the film, having so little understanding of the point of a book, characters and the psychology behind it all. Half-way through the film we see the main twist or ‘mystery’ contained in the book given away, which makes the film pointless to watch from thereon. And, if that was not enough, the film continued to omit vital scenes in the book, although it did stay faithful to the majority of events and dialogues in the novel.
I attribute some of the main problems of this film to casting; many characters in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ are completely miscast. Nicole Kidman does not make a bad Isabel Archer; it is just she does not make a true one. In the book, Isabel is a fun-loving, curious and easy going person. Although Kidman managed to convey the serious, strong and intellectual sides of the character, she did not succeed in presenting Isabel as kind, caring, thoughtful or easy-going. Kindman’s Isabel comes across as a forceful, impatient and even quite cunning individual. From the very first scenes, Kidman’s Isabel is like a ferocious dog set loose and this inner aggression is felt throughout the film. In that way Kidman completely misrepresented Isabel.
The cast of Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood should, I think, be the most surprising of all. Lord Warburton is supposed to be the very ideal of every young woman’s fantasy: young, tall, immensely handsome, intelligent and rich. The drama of the story is that Isabel rejects someone so perfect for her dream of freedom and independence. Surely, casting Richard E. Grant, who looks like he can be Isabel’s father, is not the cleverest of ways to show that. If anything, Grant should have been cast as a wealthy industrious Mr Goodwood and let a young and good-looking Viggo Mortensen to play the role of a handsome English Lord.
The point of the whole story can be characterised in these words: danger concealed behind charm and benevolent actions. Taking this into consideration, casting Malkovich as Gilbert Osmond is surely overdoing it completely. Malkovich as Osmond is menacing and despotic, even when he meets Isabel for the first time. He is like a violent Duke from ‘The Duchess’ (2008). Although Osmond is supposed to be strict in his manner, controlling and emotionally empty, he is also portrayed as very likeable and good-looking in the novel, and not half as ‘evil’ as the film set him out to be.
Overall, it seems that ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ presented us with the stereotypes or the caricatures of the characters in the book. Perhaps only Martin Donovan provided a spot-on portrayal of his character, i.e. Ralph. Donovan seems to be perfectly cast and, in a way, appears even more interesting that Isabel. His character is an intelligent, humble and faithful friend of the main heroine, who instantly sees all the potential that is in Isabel, and stays true to her inner adventurous spirit, despite the changes which her marriage produced in her. Christian Bale as Edward Rosier, a suitor of Pansy, Osmond’s daughter, does not show more than he already did in ‘Little Women’ (1994), but, nevertheless, portrays convincingly a disillusioned man in love.
Despite the fact that I generally love Campion’s work, I could feel nothing much but disappointment upon seeing ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. Despite the aesthetic beauty of the picture, the involvement of great actors and some outstanding acting shown, ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ is a dull, obvious and predictable film, providing a stark contrast to the subtlety and complexity of Henry James’s novel. As the main heroine herself, the film falls into a trap of thinking that pretty and rich façade is enough to make one happy or in this instance its audience happy. ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ provides little in terms of substance, apart from pretty costumes and Hershey and Donovan’s outstanding acting. 5/10