[Deep Focus]

I should first mention that I've never read the Henry James novel on which Campion's version of The Portrait of a Lady is based. I should further confess that I never cared at all for The Piano, Campion's 1993 study of a similarly hapless character. And so it was that, having absorbed a handful of rousing critical hosannahs (from Amy Taubin, Sheila Benson, Film Comment's Kathleen Murphy, and Sight and Sound's Lizzie Francke), I made a reluctant opening weekend pilgrimage to the theater, propped my eyelids open with toothpicks, and tried my best not to slouch in my seat. I found my efforts rewarded -- paced at the bare threshold of monotony, The Portrait of a Lady certainly demands rapt attention, although viewers' response to the picture seems to vary wildly. Once I had made it through to the very end, I had decided it was at least a moving experience if a languorous one.

That was more than three weeks ago, and I've been fighting off a nasty virus with a New York attitude ever since. But now that I'm finally sitting down to write, I'm surprised at how quickly the essence of Isabel Archer comes rushing back at me. If you do choose to give two-and-a-half hours of scrutiny to this carefully drawn character study, you may want to avoid thinking too much about the movie when it's over and consider it instead a long-term investment. Weeks or even months later, who knows if you might not flash back on your movie-theater memories of Isabel Archer's pale blue eyes, Gilbert Osmond's affected disdain for "dingy people," or the romantic notions of the giggling teenagers who open the film, a cautionary bridge between past and present.

The Portrait of a Lady is the story of Isabel (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful American abroad who seems to have her choice of eligible bachelors. As the film opens, she's baffling friends and family by declining the marriage proposal of the rich Lord Warburton (Richard Grant) and rebuking the advances of Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortenson), who has followed her from New York. Her sickly cousin Ralph (Martin Donovan), himself more than a little enamored of her, is looking forward to seeing where her willful independence will lead her. And when her uncle (John Gielgud, briefly) dies and wills her a sizable fortune, it looks as though the entire world is spread out before her.

Despite her intentions, Isabel's fine life is derailed by Osmond (John Malkovich), who schemes after her newly acquired fortune. Isabel is introduced to Osmond by Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), who we come to suspect has her own reasons for luring Isabel into his lair. Believing the rather sour Osmond to be a man driven by his lofty tastes and refined sensibilities, Isabel becomes engaged to him against the warnings and protestations of Ralph, who contends that Osmond just wants Isabel's money. As it turns out, Osmond wants more than her money. He's a self-important sadist who wants to control her and to own her, to add her to his expansive hoard of arty trinkets. What ensues is a sort of psychological horror story, as Isabel slowly comes to bear the crushing weight of her decisions.

As the woman who gets Isabel into this mess, Hershey is fine, but there's a striving intensity to her performance that constantly reminds you that it's just that -- a performance. Malkovich, meanwhile, plays to the cheap seats as Isabel's seducer and obvious adversary (is anyone else constantly reminded that Malkovich and Malevolence share so many letters in common?). His casting has come under some criticism, but there's a delicious (if inappropriate) melodrama inherent in the scenes where he and Hershey play off one another that adds a little vinegar to the proceedings. The supporting players are uniformly fine, with the exception of Mary Louise Parker as Isabel's journalist friend. The less said the better, perhaps, though shrill isn't quite the right word and irritating doesn't begin to cover the bases. So poorly does she reflect on Campion's direction that I thought I'd have to leave the theater.

Some critics have held that Isabel is at best inscrutable and at worst unappealing as the object of all this attention (from her suitors as well as from the audience), but Campion's film has to be approached as a study of interiors, not of exteriors. A fantasy sequence near the film's beginning where Isabel imagines making love with three different men helps establish the film largely as Isabel's subjective experience, not as the story told by some omniscient narrator on whose head falls the burden of proof. Fortunately, Kidman's performance invited me right inside the lady's head, where I simply felt her motivations rather than deducing them. As misguided as her decisions are, they make emotional sense in terms of her well-meaning determination to give her life over to only the most extraordinary of men. When she falls for Malkovich's cruel, pseudointellectual snow job of a courtship, it's tragic but in keeping with a character who's trying far too hard to do the right thing at the expense of her mortal soul.

It's worth noting that the audience -- an upscale Manhattan crowd, supposedly the perfect demographic for a new Campion outing -- had far less patience with all this business than I did. The restlessness in the auditorium was palpable, and every so often a heavy sigh -- or, worse, a giggle -- drifted through the air. Campion's least effective when she's the most self-conscious -- utilizing a statue with its stone penis snapped off, posing Hershey in front of a gigantic crucifix as she plays Judas, or tilting a street scene at an awkward angle and then rotating the damn camera on its axis. (Snickering is certainly a valid response.) Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography, as insistently expressive as Wojciech Kilar's score, keeps the picture interesting (he does snow very well, which suits the chilly atmosphere) but, like Hershey's performance, calls too much attention to itself.

Still, I can't deny that I walked out of the theater oddly satisfied. Campion is a confident enough filmmaker that she can entertain flashes of mad brilliance. Witness the surrealistic black-and-white interlude that marks the film's halfway point, during which Isabel meets both the Lumiere brothers and Luis Bunuel -- Campion has her heroine dreaming in the language of the movies, which of course didn't yet exist. I was particularly fond of one breathtaking cut that occurs in the sequence where Malkovich consummates his careful seduction of Isabel -- the camera is suddenly trucking around a curved wall inset with human bones before finding Kidman and Malkovich again. Finally, see what you make of the exquisite, enigmatic final shot, which snaps a picture of Isabel at the moment she realizes that she's finally and fatally trapped -- or that the world has, once again, opened up before her.

Directed by Jane Campion
Written by Laura Jones
Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh
Original Score by Wojciech Kilar
Starring Nicole Kidman, Barbara Hershey, and John Malkovich
USA/U.K., 1996

The novel by Henry James is available online.

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