Portrait of a Lady - * *

The Portrait of a Lady is a distant and chilly adaptation of the Henry James novel that never gets off the ground. Nicole Kidman stars a Isabel Archer, an American in Europe who, at the film’s outset, she dismisses a marriage proposal from the wealthy Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), and instead expresses a desire to tour the world. When an unexpected fortune comes her way, the scheming Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey) introduces her to the calculatingly seductive Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), a mysterious recluse in Italy, who delights in manipulating people. She is smitten by Osmond, and yet struggles to maintain her own identity under the pressures of Osmond and society. Director Jane Campion, as in The Piano, is obviously aiming to portray the struggles of an independent young woman caught between marraige and society’s image of the ideal woman. In some parts, she succeeds. We are able to see the progression of Isabel from being her own woman to being constrained as a wife. However, the film is so stately and formal that it ends up being slow and uninvolving. You never really care about Isable, Mme. Merle, Osmond or anyone else in the cast. Technically, Campion deserves some credit for staging parts of the film in a unique way, setting it apart from the standard period drama. For example, a travel montage is filmed as a surrealistic early black and white film. But while these interludes occasionally perk up the story, they fail to reclaim it.

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