Jane Campion has crafted a darkly elegant film without an ounce of heart.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

Jane Campion's "Portrait of a Lady" is a relentlessly dark interpretation of Henry James's novel. While a novelist can build characters in layers of accumulating detail, a film director has just two hours to explain their inner lives. The filmmaker must turn all that material into visual reward, and risks losing the gradual process of revelation. Jane Campion has made the novel her own, as she should, but she has given the audience only the external surface of James's characters. We are not invited to understand them.

If she has missed the essence of the people, Campion certainly delivers a characteristically brooding landscape. Skirts rustle through the dark corridors, rain pelts the heavily curtained windows. Everything looks stark, dark, forbidding. It is, at times, a ballet of umbrellas.

Isabel Archer, an orphaned 23-year-old American, arrives at Gardencourt, the lush country estate of her English aunt and uncle (Shelley Winters and John Gielgud). She has entered a world of whispered plans, conversational codes, and eligible men, most of whom fall in love with her.

Isabel's cousin Ralph (Martin Donovan) hands her a philosophy and arranges the means for her to enjoy it. "I call people rich when they are able to meet the requirements of their imagination," he tells her as he persuades Mr. Touchett to leave his niece a hefty legacy in English pounds.

Of all the men who love her, Isabel chooses Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), an eel of a man, a lazy serpent who slides through people's lives taking from them what he needs. John Malkovich, playing a role that has become a second skin and speaking in a voice imaginable only in an amoeba, can make a wicked threat of even the mildest of words. So poisonous is he that he throws the film off balance. We become preoccupied with how Isabel could have married such a man.

The movie works best whenever Madame Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey) is around. Hershey is fiery and genuine as the aging beauty, the master manipulator who wrestles with her loyalty to both Osmond and Isabel.

The real problem in this movie swirls around Isabel Archer. It is not fair to blame Nicole Kidman entirely for the failure of the film's Isabel when most of the spirit that propels her has been left on the page. The truth is that Kidman's Isabel has neither the spirit nor the presence that would explain why she is such a powerful magnet in the society around her. Her voice is flat, her manner cold. In fact, the whole movie, with the exception of Martin Donovan's caring Ralph, has an emotional windchill factor of minus 10.

Nothing in this Isabel suggests Henry James's American innocent on a personal journey toward experience that will "meet the requirements of the imagination." She is not a learner. Jane Campion has crafted a darkly elegant film without an ounce of heart.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 500
Studio : Polygram
Rating : PG-13
Running Time: 2h24m

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