James biographer Leon Edel noted that at moments in The Portrait of a Lady, "the story verges on melodrama when it isn't pure fairy tale: a rich uncle, a poor niece, an ugly sick cousin who worships her from a distance, three suitors, a fairy-godfather who converts the niece into an heiress, and finally her betrayal by a couple of her cosmopolite compatriots into a marriage as sinister as the backdrop of a Brontë novel." To Edel, James's work is a prime example that what gives a novel life isn't the story: "It was the way in which the story was told, the qualities of mind and heart that flowed into it, suffusing it with the warmth and texture of life itself." (Or, as Sam Peckinpah said, "It's the way you blow up a bridge.") Campion and Jones tell it with full-frontal banality; it doesn't verge on melodrama, it drowns in melodrama. Like the most blatant hacks (but with flurries of art-house filigree), the filmmakers use a raging hormonal imbalance to account for Isabel's odd choice to marry Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), that paragon of useless good taste. Poor Isabel: She's transformed from a seeker after truth and beauty to a sort of hard-shelled ditz whose destiny changes with a kiss.
Although I'm all for adapters of classic work boldly announcing their freedom from tradition, Campion and Jones's devices aren't far removed from Baz Luhrmann's in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This period piece begins with contemporary young ladies in languid poses, photographed with the fungoid gloss that Campion long ago made her visual signature. We see a girl whose blank face seems to scream out "tabula rasa" subtly swaying to the music on her Discman before we fade into the intense, empty face of Nicole Kidman. If Campion and Jones were saying solely that "girls will be girls" throughout the years, the device would be condescending and facile; what makes it worse is that on the soundtrack, we hear the girls' silly chatter about kissing--and when you get right down to it, this movie really is about nothing more than kissing.
Before we get a chance to acclimate ourselves to the strange closed world of American expatriates in the late 1800s, Isabel, at her uncle Mr. Touchett's British estate, is already putting off the admirable, forward-thinking Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), surprising everyone, including her termagant aunt (Shelley Winters) and her sickly, loving, observant cousin, Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan). Then we learn of her previous suitor, the aggressive American businessman Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), who's been tipped off to her location by her roving journalist friend, Henrietta Stackpole (Mary-Louise Parker). Before long, Isabel has a dream of Ralph and Caspar and Warburton making love to her in bed. Screenwriter Jones has written that if James "is turning in his grave at the vision of Isabel's romantic sexual fantasies, I hope he is turning with pleasure." From what--imagining himself in Isabel's place? (Really, this latter-day Jamesian sexual revisionism has gone too far.)
By the time Ralph advises his father to give half his inheritance to Isabel, the film's tone has already been set: ugly, brutish and warped. And from there on in, the moviemakers relentlessly telegraph the plot turns so that rather than empathize with Isabel as her upward-aspiring vision plays tricks with her, we deem her incredibly stupid for not seeing that Gilbert Osmond is a well-dressed homunculus. The moviemakers guarantee that we'll feel superior to Isabel by giving away at the outset that Madame Merle was Osmond's mistress. In the famous last line of the novel, which of course has no correlation in the movie, Henrietta Stackpole teaches the spurned-yet-again Caspar Goodwood "the meaning of patience." One wishes it had been taught to Campion and Jones. Throughout, they seek to grab us with clipped scenes and stark effects, the nadir being a flickering black-and-white montage of Isabel freaking out during an Egyptian tour over her response to Osmond's ardent courting, a sequence complete with a spinning-parasol pattern out of Vertigo and, yes, talking lima beans. And the direction of the actors is ludicrously over-emphatic--at one point, Osmond brays in imitation of a donkey. James wrote that in his novel he strove to attain "the maximum of intensity with the minimum of strain"; Campion and Jones exert the maximum of strain to achieve the minimum of intensity.
The Portrait of a Lady.
Written by Laura Jones, from the novel by Henry James. Directed by Jane Campion. With Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich.