14 September 1999 | SKG-2
Misses the mark, but shouldn't be entirely dismissed
When I read DAISY MILLER in high school and was completely unengaged, that set me off the wrong foot with Henry James. I also dislike his over-attentiveness to detail, and I must confess a prejudice against any writer who says in 10 pages what they could just have easily said in 2. Yet THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, once you get into it, turns out to be quite a powerful novel, and given how much I loved THE PIANO, I was really looking forward to what Jane Campion could bring to it. Rarely have I seen a movie version, though, which is so far off the mark but still has worthy parts to it.
Let's start with the mistakes. Campion claimed she was re-imagining the story of Isabel Archer, an American woman of character but not of means, who eventually marries unhappily, instead of just giving a straight filmed version. That's all well and good, but what she and writer Laura Jones do is all but gut the motivations behind the story; we don't see Archer's vitality early on, so we have nowhere to go when she falls, and we don't see what draws people to her. And when Madame Merle and Osmond appear, they are so obviously snakes in the grass that we think Archer is a fool for trusting them, instead of feeling empathy for her. It doesn't help that Malkovich is so obviously bored here he does nothing to exude any charm. Hershey comes off better, but what's done with her character is a little strange as well.
Nevertheless, this movie can't be easily dismissed. First of all, Campion's gift for imagery still comes through; she visually expresses the passions lying hidden in the novel, which few directors do when adapting period pieces. Also, Kidman grows more confident as the movie wears on, so we do get a sense of Isabel. But as someone already commented, the most worthy element here is Martin Donovan as Ralph, Isabel's sickly cousin in love with her, and whose advice sets the whole story in motion. He doesn't play for sentiment, but earns it instead. The ending also keeps its power. Still, this is quite a missed opportunity for Campion.