Published December 1, 1996
Portrait of a Lady by Jane Campion has a very strange beginning. A bunch of contemporary girls, photographed in black and white and grainy stills, as if they were the fading memories, talk about love and men and kissing and “relationships” and marriage over opening credits until one holds out her hand and we see written on it (such schoolgirls with their walkmans and backpacks and slouchy dress are always writing on themselves), in an old-fashioned script, “Portrait of a Lady.” It is a clever idea, but it is not carried over into the film in any way that I can see. It is merely there as a reminder of the fact that Jane Campion — like the mass audience she is hoping for — finds the most striking thing about Henry James’s masterpiece of characterization not those things which make his heroine, uniquely, Isabel Archer but those things which Isabel Archer shared with the rest of the nineteenth century. It is the strangeness of all that weird formality which this film is ultimately about.
In one way, this is a mere vulgarization of and an outrage against Henry James, though by the end of it I think we do have something of the sense of a greater thing in the background. As Philip Larkin wrote in his “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album”—
Or is it just the past? Those flowers, that gate
These misty parks and motors lacerate
Simply by being over; you
Contract my heart by looking out of date.
What the film lacks is the kind of self-awareness that Larkin showed when he went on:
Yes, true; but in the end, surely, we cry
Not only at exclusion, but because
It leaves us free to cry. We know what was
Won’t call on us to justify
Our grief, however hard we yowl across
The gap from eye to page. . .
Such self-awareness might have saved the film from its worst excess, which is to suggest the merely feminist reading that Isabel, played in rather lacklustre fashion by Nicole Kidman, is just a slightly more aristocratic version of Ibsen’s Nora, a feminist prototype who is trapped by the norms of the oppressive patriarchy (until she summons up the nerve to walk out) rather than by her own combination of innocence and sentimental idealism.
Isabel speaks briefly and confusingly to Henrietta (Mary Louise Parker) about her desire to gain “a general impression of life” as her explanation for refusing Caspar Goodwood (Vigo Mortensen), but we never quite see the connection between this desire and the curious kind of vanity that attracts her to Osmond (John Malkovich). On the contrary, we have an astonishingly crass fantasy sequence in which she imagines herself being fondled by Goodwood, Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan, looking far too robust in the role of this supposedly tubercular waif) and Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant) all at once, and later another of carnal imagination with Osmond. It is as if Ms Campion is trying to insist in the teeth of everything Jamesian that Isabel’s falling into the trap of marriage with Osmond was ultimately all about the puritanical Victorians not allowing her any other sexual outlet!
There is not only ideology but a kind of Antipodean cynicism about this which is particularly ill-matched to the very American character of Isabel as James imagined her. What saves the film from complete disaster is the fact that Malkovich does such a good job of rendering the cynicism which really is in James. He and Barbara Hershey almost manage to make the caricatures of Gilbert Osmond and Madam Merle come alive, and Valentina Cervi is a lovely Pansy. Christian Bale is also very good as her disappointed suitor, Rosier. But other casting decisions are not so good. Mary Louise Parker is out of her depth as the out-of-her-depth Henrietta Stackpole. Likewise the two Shelleys, Winters and Duvall, as Mrs Touchett and Miss Osmond, have more silliness and vulgarity about them than is required for their respective parts. John Gielgud as Mr Touchett plays John Gielgud. Mr Grant looks too coarse and silly to be a convincing Lord Warburton, but that impression may be owing to fresh memories of his Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night.
The film is not without its successes. Miss Campion does make us see, I think, how Osmond is able to seduce Isabel with her own virtues without making her seem merely vain. Ralph, as the occasional spokesman for what remains of James in the movie says to her: “The world interests you, and you want to throw yourself into it. Don’t repudiate it; it’s very fine.” Yet in a way this “fine” quality in her character is just the other side of that which Mrs Touchett refers to when she says that Isabel “is quite capable of marrying him for the beauty of his opinions or his autograph of Michaelangelo.” There is a kind or archetypal, male-female character to this matchup of innocence and experience, a more refined version of the traditional paradigm in which woman looks to man as teacher as well as protector. Of course, the subtlety and irony of it is coarsened and cheapened in Miss Campion’s telling by the feminist imperative. But that it survives at all is to her credit.