The Portrait of a Lady

on December 27, 1996 by Bridget Byrne
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  &#160Jane Campion has adapted Henry James' classic 1881 novel "The Portrait of a Lady" in off-kilter style. The result is a pleasing if not entirely successful loosening up of the traditional costume drama. Her modern viewpoints spring naturally from the novel's themes, but sometimes the tricks she plays, though witty, are not essential. She gets beneath the skin of Isabel Archer's misguided quest for an intelligent life--literally, for the movie contains those Campionesque below-the-surface touches in which objects seem to sigh, the earth to move, the soul to thud in the lungs--in a way that points up that no living moment is mundane. The dialogue, the sense of time and place as the cultures of the Old and New Worlds collide in 19th-century Europe, the heroic charm of Isabel, the manipulative allure of Madame Merle who leads her astray: All these are handled with imagination and ease, but not the storyline or the men who people its path.
  &#160Nicole Kidman is a splendid Isabel, curving forth to shape her own destiny with an appealing mix of naivete and regality, and Barbara Hershey's bruised beauty imbues with rue her Merle's trickery. But the male roles are miscast. John Malkovich is too obvious a choice for the evil lounge lizard Gilbert Osmond, so his portrayal therefore lacks fascination. Richard E. Grant as Lord Warburton is without the dignity that would have made the proposal of marriage to Archer less easy to reject. Viggo Mortensen's dime-novel good looks oversimplify the threatening ardor of the insistent Caspar Goodwood. Martin Donovan, despite his many well-timed coughs, seems too vigorous as the consumptive Ralph Touchett. In consequence, following Isabel's feelings toward each and every lover becomes a very bumpy ride, while the overview that Campion espouses is also uncertain in judgment and tone.
  &#160The costumes (wondrously flattering to Kidman's figure--or maybe it's vice versa) and production design by Janet Patterson have a cruel beauty. Mary-Louise Parker is amusing as the stridently "modern" Henrietta Stackpole, and Sir John Gielgud amazingly original in a cameo deathbed scene. Starring Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich and Barbara Hershey. Directed by Jane Campion. Written by Laura Jones. Produced by Monty Montgomery and Steve Golin. A Gramercy release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for sensuality and some brief nudity. Running time: 142 min
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