"The Portrait of a Lady"
Opened: January 17, 1996 | Rated: R
Whether Jane Campion spent a lot of energy and time on her post-feminist telling of Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady" is not in dispute. The enormity of her effort comes through clearly enough. What she was doing with all that time and energy leaves much to be desired.
She seems to have focus on three things: Technique, technique and technique.
This is one handsome film, overflowing with beautifully designed sets, intricately planned camerawork and clever transitions. But Campion has sacrificed sense to style, leaving powerful characters only vaguely explored in a story that should be based in emotions, not looks.
Nicole Kidman's Isabelle Archer is a serious and strong-willed woman, but she has a heart susceptible to romantic deception. What little soul this movie has comes entirely from Kidman's resourceful and potent performance as a proper lady, brave enough to move from America to London on her own, who nonetheless loses her composure (and ultimately her freedom) to issues of the heart.
A nervous creature who titters around like a fly caught in a jar, Isabelle moves like she is trying to get away from the emotions rising in her.
But those emotions go largely unexplored. Campion spends little time inside Isabelle's head and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions about many of her feelings.
Those feelings center mainly around her swift courtship by a rogue named Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) and their ultimately unhappy and abusive marriage.
Malkovich is, well...Malkovich. He is an older, uglier version of his vicious and seductive Valmont from "Dangerous Liaisons," but without the unnerving charm. A poor casting choice, he offers nothing to convince us that Isabelle might fall for him in spite of herself.
Their marriage is engineered by Osmond and his ex-lover (Barbara Hershey) as a way to finance a dowry for their illegitimate daughter with the fortune Isabelle has inherited from her Uncle (the always-splendid John Gielgud).
Despite intense and probing dialogue -- the kind that makes real life feel far too simple -- "Portrait" leaves a lot to the imagination (even the end). There are large gaps in time the audience has to fill in and the pacing is so off that even within a scene there can be rich, intense moments followed immediately by completely hollow ones.
Campion tries to gloss over these lagging scenes with inventive filmmaking. On occasions when Isabelle is hurrying somewhere the camera falls on the back of her dress brushing against the ground. A few Fellini-esque shots add character to the visuals (the use of a spinning parasol is properly hypnotic) and she employs silent film techniques in several transitions.
But sometimes she goes far out of her way to be artistic and her film looks foolish. This is most blatant in the opening moments, which for some reason are shot in modern day, at a park with a bunch of grunge kids lounging around spouting poetry. The scene is never revisited (it feels like a single bookend) and serves only to anchor this film severly in the 1990s. Throughout "Portrait" there is a nagging sensation that makes one want to ask, "But where is all this going?"
Ultimately, it goes nowhere and says very little, despite Campion's best efforts.