The Portrait of a Lady is based on a novel by Henry James, written in the 19th century. It concerns a young American woman who comes to Europe to visit relatives, and becomes involved with suitors both European and American. In a greater sense, it's another of James' stories about the clash of American and European cultures.
The problems with the film start, as most films' problems do, with the script. It's an over-long, rather straightforward telling of the story, with a few ill-advised stylistic flourishes. Not having read the novel, I will not comment on the script's faithfulness to the book, but it is not successful on its own terms. However, the script is not the greatest problem with this film.
With one major and a couple of minor exceptions, the film was very badly cast, with the greatest problems in the most central roles. These casting mistakes, combined with the poor script and a lack of directorial inspiration, sink the film.
The title role is the core of the problem. Isabel Archer is meant to be a truly extraordinary young woman, someone who inspires love in practically every man she meets and admiration in practically every woman. We are told that she is capable of great things, that she could live a life that would amaze us. The story goes to great lengths to tell us how wonderful she is - but that's all it does, tell us. It never shows us anything to make the audience admire the young woman. A better script would have shown us the immense potential of this young woman, and made us understand why people are so very interested in her. Given that Laura Jones' script did not make that choice, the only hope was to cast the part with an actress with such fierce charisma and internal flame that we would immediately agree that she was indeed a remarkable woman, even if we never see her do or say anything remarkable. That means someone like a young Katherine Hepburn. Nicole Kidman is beautiful, and reasonably talented, but she doesn't have that kind of charisma. As a result, the audience is left to wonder why everyone is making such a fuss over her.
John Malkovich is equally wrong for his part, that of an American expatriate who has lived in Florence for years, cultivating a collection of art and antiquities, seemingly doing little else. The story demands that he exert a nearly irresistible attraction on Isabel, who has been well able to resist the attractions of younger, wealthier, more handsome and eligible men. There is absolutely nothing about Malkovich in this role that suggests he would attract such an extraordinary young woman. He's not handsome, the script gives him no real opportunity to dazzle her with his supposedly exquisite taste, and he doesn't even seem terribly interested in her. Again, the writing required a far more charismatic actor. Malkovich does better when the darkest side of the character comes out, but that's too late to do much good.
Some of the supporting roles were cast with truly annoying actors. Both Mary Louise Parker and Shelley Duvall, in rather similar roles as eccentric busy bodies, made one wish that Arnold Schwarzenegger had a role in the film, so there would be some hope that he'd suddenly show up with a machine gun and blow them away. Shelley Winters and Christian Bale were merely boring, a big step up. Richard E. Grant and Viggo Mortenson play Kidman's other suitors, and were apparently chosen to give some credibility to the attractiveness of Malkovich, by contrast. They are acceptable, but unextraordinary. Martin Donovan is not especially good as Kidman's consumptive, infatuated British cousin. John Gielgud appears briefly as Donovan's father, and does what he can with the part.
Barbara Hershey, on the other hand, seemed to be the only actor in command of her role. Only she, among the leads, seems like she has the characteristics the script claims for her. She practically makes the film worth watching, at least during her scenes. Ms. Hershey is a fine, underappreciated actress who deserves the best roles. She, and the production design (by Janet Patterson), were the only good qualities of the film.
As far as the direction goes, Jane Campion has made an excellent audition piece for the Cinematic Academy of Embalming. She did a fine job convincing the audience that, yes, classics on the screen do have to be a tedious chore to sit through. She uses a glacial pace, lots of long-held shots on the central character's face (in which Ms. Kidman's expressive abilities are stretched well beyond her current limitations), many stately tracking shots, and plenty of long-held images of pretty scenery and architecture . Most of the film looks like Merchant/Ivory, without their driving intensity. (That's a little joke, in case it isn't clear.) This is one seriously dull film.
Campion dolls the film up with various little cinematic tricks, perhaps trying to convince herself that she wasn't making such a stodgy film. In one scene, Isabel fantasizes about abandoning herself to her potential lovers, and they eventually disappear in gratuitous special effects. The opening sequences features a bunch of modern young women talking about their lives in disconnected snippets. Isabel's travels after meeting Malkovich are dealt with as a fake travelog done in the style of an early silent film. And once in a while Campion chooses a skewed camera angle, for no apparent reason. These departures from the overall style of the film seemed desperate. Each is a separate, momentary stylistic departure from the extremely conventional style of the body of the film. They are in no sense part of an integrated whole, unlike, say, the bridging shots in Breaking the Waves.
It's not actually the case that Henry James has to be dull, but you'd never guess that from The Portrait of a Lady. You'd be far better off seeing The Heiress again, or getting hold of the BBC production of The Golden Bowl, than wasting time on The Portrait of a Lady.
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