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The Portrait of a Lady



Adapted from the novel by Henry James by Laura Jones

Directed by Jane Campion

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Barbara Hershey, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Donovan, Shelly Duvall, Richard E. Grant, Shelly Winters, Viggo Mortensen, Valentina Cervi, Christian Bale and John Gielgud

Barbican – Cinema 1

April 18, 2010







A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

This film, based on Henry James’s 1882 novel, one of his most popular, explores some of his oft revisited themes: freedom, desire and betrayal, though not necessarily in that order.

Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) is an American in England, visiting her elderly uncle (John Gielgud), his wife (Shelly Winters) and their handsome son Ralph (Martin Donovan). She is a high-spirited, independent young woman full of ideas of freedom and daydreams of desire.

As the film opens, Isabel is strolling in the grounds of her uncle’s palatial home when Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant) drops to one knee before her to propose. Not waiting for him to continue, she rushes off, back to the house, past the admiring gaze of her cousin Ralph. Later, when her uncle speaks to her of her future, Isabel expresses her longing to go out into the wider world, scoffing at the idea that marriage to Lord Warburton may be a good thing. However, unbeknown to her, her cousin Ralph has convinced his father to leave her a fortune.

Jane Campion’s film of Laura Jones’s adaptation centres very much on the possible motivations that headstrong, self deceptive Isabel may have for her personal decisions, as they apply to the aforementioned themes. It may sound trite, but Nicole Kidman is Isabel Archer, and Kidman’s glamorous Hollywood persona marks her out as the perfect choice for the role of stylishly elegant 19th century Isabel, so much so that her performance was cited as ‘flawless’ on the Barbican website. As far as I could surmise, being a fan of James’s writing, under Campion’s direction, Kidman and her character become one.

Isabel is a mass of paradoxes, the main reason being that she doesn’t know herself as well as she thinks she does. Though many worthy men express their love for her: Lord Warburton, Ralph Touchett and a former suitor, Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen) who repeatedly travels from America to see her, only to be rebuffed yet again, and she daydreams about all of them in a sensual way, the only man she develops a true craving for is Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), who, it is apparent from the start, will be her undoing. But Isabel has been lead to believe by Osmond’s partner in crimes of the heart, Madame Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey) that he is a genteel man of good taste. However, in reality, the only thing he really has a taste for is vengeance, against women. In regard to Isabel, hers is the age old tale of a person who can have anyone they want, wanting the only one that can’t be had. In the case of Isabel and Osmond, it is also a tale of treachery and deception.

This film is truly sumptuous, as it is fairly bursting with scenes of opulent extravagance. Campion’s Isabel is a woman who never wears the same gown twice and it must have been a pleasure for the ever fashionable Kidman to wear the numerous finely tailored ensembles designed for her role. The camera emphasizes the nuances of Isabel in these costumes by focusing closely on the rustling of a train along the floor for example, adding to the sense of ‘being there,’ in the 19th century. We also see the highs and lows of the locales the film is set in, - gold cutlery and plates at Isabel and Osmond’s dinner party in their villa and the bustling, dirty streets of the Italy surrounding it. Some of the camera angles are very intriguing as well, with one scene being observed from below, as though we are watching it through the metal railing of a house, with autumn leaves sweeping across our line of vision. Campion is a great one for focusing briefly on a myriad of details in crowd scenes, in order to give a sense of the larger picture, rather than the usual sweeping shots, moving closely onto gowns and gloves at a ball, the patterns dancers make from above or close shots of male and female hands meeting in the formalized intimacy of a dance.

As is always the case with Campion films, scenes look beautiful, with a multitude of flowers in bloom or snow encrusted trees, always considering season and emotional content. For example, a painfully emotive scene can be set in the context of a lovely spring landscape, which tends to heighten its’ poignancy, or vice versa, i.e. driving rain in moments of betrayal. Foreshadowing also plays a pivotal role, with the large groaning doors of Osmond and Isabel’s house closing out the light speaking volumes as Isabel enters and it closes behind her, sounding like the doors of an escape proof prison.

John Malkovich’s Osmond almost seems to be interchangeable with the treacherous character he played in Dangerous Liaisons, who, similarly pursued a young woman with the intention of deflowering her, except that here, he has effectively, been set up with Isabel, as she in turn has been set up by Madame Serena Merle (Hershey) who paves the way for Osmond, in the role of an embittered older woman giving him something she thinks he’d really like, namely, a younger, much richer one. Speaking of which, Campion really provides viewers with a sense of the short shelf life of women’s desirability in this film, particularly via plaintive scenes in which Hershey as Madame Merle is openly rueful of Isabel’s youth, and those in which she makes it plain that though she once loved Osmond herself, she is aware that he no longer finds her desirable. In short, we are made aware of what William Blake referred to as ‘the marriage hearse’ as, once a woman was married, her days of freedom were literally dead. For all Isabel’s claims that she would ‘never marry,’ in those days, she would have had no choice if she wanted to keep her reputation, which was all important for women then.

Casting is generally something you can really count on in a Campion film, and there are some fine performances here in addition to Kidman’s. Barbara Hershey is equally well suited to her role as Osmond’s discarded lover, Madame Merle and inspires empathy and compassion for her character. It’s also a pleasure seeing Shelly Winters and John Gielgud as husband and wife, however distant their characters have become and however briefly they are on screen. Martin Donovan gives a very moving performance as Isabel’s consumptive Ralph Touchett, who seems to serve as an onscreen forerunner to Campion’s later handling of terminally ill John Keats in Bright Star. Richard E. Grant is delightfully dapper and blindly philosophical as wealthy Lord Warburton and Viggo Mortensen is bright, fresh faced and matter of fact as Isabel’s rejected suitor, Caspar Goodwood. Whereas, Shelly Duvall’s portrayal of Osmond’s initially flaky sister, Duchess Gemini tends to grate at the outset, she ends up being a character one warms to over time, as does Mary Louise Parker’s Henrietta Stackpole, the bespectacled, rather domineering friend who accompanies Isabel on the grand tour. Last but not least are Valentina Cervi and Christian Bale as seemingly, star-crossed lovers, Osmond’s daughter Pansy, and her ardent young suitor Edward Rosier, whom Osmond callously drives apart.

This film, which won several awards, among them, Best Supporting Actress for Barbara Hershey and, not surprisingly, Best Costume Design, makes for enjoyable watching indeed. But it is also very valuable for this reason, perhaps above all, that we are reminded through it that historically speaking, women have not long had the freedom to do as they wanted, as Isabel herself would have wished.


For tickets:


Tickets: Standard - £7.50 online (£9.50 full price) / Barbican Members - £6.50 online (£7.50 full price) / Concessions £7.50 / Under 15 £4.50


The Barbican’s marvellous Jane Campion Directorspective concludes with Bright Star (2009)on Sat. Apr. 24th at 2:00 pm






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