Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, her 1996 adaptation of Henry James’ celebrated novel, was only released for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray last month. Even though I was a huge fan of Campion’s The Piano when it first came out in 1993, I never bothered to see her follow-up, in large part because of the lukewarm reviews. After finally catching up with The Portrait of a Lady on DVD, I can say that it is a great and massively underrated film. Although less formally “perfect” than The Piano, it is more ambitious in terms of narrative structure and more ornate in its visual style, qualities for which Campion should be applauded. And, in the end, I would argue it is just as emotionally satisfying.
The only Henry James I’ve read is his excellent but fairly obscure 1898 novella In the Cage, which seems somewhat similar to The Portrait of a Lady in its intimate depiction of female psychology. But Campion has now sent me back to reading the source novel for her movie and can there can be any higher praise for a literary adaptation than that? Below are some notes on Campion’s film.
– This is not your father’s “period piece” (i.e., Merchant Ivory-type) movie. Campion is a bold, and occasionally nutty, visual stylist. Not all of her ideas work (e.g., the hokey moment when the three men disappear from Isabel’s fantasy, or adopting the style of a Lumiere brothers-like “actuality” to illustrate Isabel’s worldwide travels) but her films are always interesting to look at even when she misfires. It is obvious that she used to be a painter.
– This is clearly Henry James-as-filtered-through-a-contemporary-female sensibility and it’s all the better for it. It begins with an audio montage over a black screen in which a chorus of Australian women describe the act of kissing (even though there are no Australian women in the movie). Later, equally Campion-esque is the hilarious depiction of tightly corseted-women passing out and being revived at a ball.
– The ensemble cast is truly phenomenal: John Gielgud (in one of his final performances), Shelley Winters (ditto for her), Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Donovan, Richard E. Grant, Shelley Duvall, Christian Bale and Viggo Mortensen. Who would’ve known at the time that Bale and Mortensen would go on to be big movie stars while Donovan and Parker would end up being relegated to television?
– As she did with Harvey Keitel in The Piano, Campion again shows a unique genius for creatively anachronistic casting. Martin Donovan brings to the part of Ralph Touchett an appealing 1990s-grunge-rock-Nirvana-greasy haired-Ethan Hawke quality. It’s really too bad he’s languishing in T.V.-land.
– This is Nicole Kidman’s first great performance.
– Barbara Hershey is so good there are moments where you can tell what she’s thinking.
– No one does aristocratic sleaziness as well as John Malkovich. In some films it seems as if his lizard-like routine is on autopilot but not here.
– There is a dialogue scene consisting of reverse-angle shots between Barbara Hershey and Nicole Kidman. In several of the shots, Barbara Hershey is framed with a statue of a naked male torso (minus the penis!) directly behind her.