"The Portrait of a Lady," alas, is a still-life without figures.
An opulent feminist re-reading of the Henry James novel, it has all the hallmarks of serious work, but it's so infuriatingly slow-moving and stilted, and the motives and relationships of its characters remain so obscure, that the thing becomes an ordeal by costume and arch dialogue.
There are deeper issues, however. Is Isabel Archer, the headstrong American girl whose quest for intellectual and emotional freedom leads to pain, a feminist character or not? Jane Campion, the director whose success with "The Piano" made this project possible, seems to think so while the meanings that were important to James in 1881 -- national character, the proper usage of the European experience by Americans -- go largely untouched. There's no sense of national difference in the film, which is one reason why it's so muddled; Campion is much more interested in sexual differences and themes of victimization.
And it doesn't help that the most compelling actor in the film, John Malkovich, is reiterating one of his most well-known roles, the coldly predatory sexual charismatic from "Dangerous Liaisons." But he needed a Glenn Close to stand up to the familiarity of his presence.
Instead, he gets Nicole Kidman, wan and feverish as Archer, James' famous heroine. Kidman's turn seems more calculated to get her the Oscar nomination she missed out on for "To Die For"; it's extravagantly overacted, but somehow Isabel's fiery intelligence is never her driving force. She's a babe, never a character. A headstrong, intelligent American girl, she is called to Britain by an aunt to enjoy the advantages of a European experience. While there, a wealthy man proposes to her, but she's so hungry for experience she astonishingly turns him down. This touches her consumptive cousin Ralph (Martin Donovan with a wracking wet cough), and he convinces his wealthy dying father to leave her part of his fortune.
Thus liberated, she travels the world, fleeing the crush of suitors -- too much time is spent on wearying 19th-century courting rituals -- but is ultimately enticed to Rome by the provocative Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey) who introduces her to her friend, the American esthete and expatriate Gilbert Osmond. This is Malkovich at his reptilian best: Cold, domineering, commanding, he sweeps the poor girl off her feet. It doesn't help that she is confused by sexual impulses for which no vocabulary exists at the time.
Bad mistake. Osmond, it turns out, is only interested in her money and using her as a method to marry off his pliant young daughter Pansy to a wealthy lord (also for the money); he's an example of the distance between beauty (which he appreciates) and morality (of which he has none). Worse, as it turns out, he and Madame Merle are locked in dark conspiracy, which is ultimately simply explained, never dramatized.
But James' contradictions, his neatly worked out paradoxes -- Isabel, seeking freedom, gets slavery, for one, and America, seeking knowledge, gets tragedy, for another -- are lost in a welter of victimhood scenarios, in which the coldly abusive Osmond deconstructs Isabel's personality for his own ends. We never understand why she stays with him, which is her stubbornness in choosing her own course and all its consequences. Her intelligence and her rationality are never a force in the bathetic drama.
And possibly the film medium, with its specificality, its precision, its ability to re-create lost worlds like expatriate Italy in the 1870s, is really not up to the literary subtleties that informed James. He once wrote, "The whole of everything is never told; you can only take what groups together." That brilliantly evokes the novel's ambiguous ending, but it gets at the movie's dreariest stroke, an ending that is far too ambiguous: It seems neither here nor there nor anywhere. The drama, what glimmers of it remain, has been so exact that an exact ending is somehow mandatory. This movie just disappears into the vapors.
'The Portrait of a Lady'
Starring Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich
Directed by Jane Campion
Released by Gramercy
Rating R (brief nudity)
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 1/17/97