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Campion 'Lady'

Portrait of a Lady
Breaking Decorum: Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) storms Isabel Archer's (Nicole Kidman) emotional fortress in "Portrait of a Lady."

Photo by Juergon Teller

Henry James wouldn't recognize his own 'Portrait' in Jane Campion's new movie

By Ella Taylor

LET'S SEE NOW: You've got your Henry James, aesthete, who planted six degrees of separation between his heroine, Isabel Archer, and all matters carnal. And you've got your Jane Campion, shock jock, for whom sex is female provocation, rebellion, liberation, the very spine of her sensibility.

Put this Mutt and that Jeff together, and you get a portrait--by turns wistfully lyrical, brilliantly original and downright daft--of one seriously screwed-up (and occasionally screwballed) lady. Why not? This is Campion's film, and she can do as she pleases. Only it's not clear what pleases her, for The Portrait of a Lady winds up marooned between Campion's reverence for James' stately, cerebral passion and her mutinous desire to dot his i's with perversity.

The movie opens with a black-and-white prologue flush with the cheeky feminist libido of Sweetie and vintage Campion shorts like "A Girl's Own Story." A bevy of modern Aussie wenches discuss the finer points of kissing while leering at the camera with studied effrontery. Are they previewing the significance of the smooch that will change Isabel Archer's life forever? Are they the new women for whom the likes of Isabel, American orphan abroad in search of experience, paved the way? Is Campion firmly commandeering the turf from James?

Cut to color and 1872, where a wasp-waisted Nicole Kidman is busy irrigating some very nice English shrubbery with her tears. A bright, warm, navel-gazing and knuckleheaded young woman, Kidman's Isabel is also a dedicated waterworks who gushes buckets (poor thing) every time a besotted rich swain sinks to his knees and swears undying love.

This happens with some frequency, for in one important respect, Isabel is the idealized fantasy of a writer whose repressed or gay or absent sexuality has fueled Ph.D. theses by the dozen. Which is to say that although Isabel's beauty and intelligence turn to putty every man who comes within a mile of her, James makes sure that none will have her, or at least none who deserve her.

Not Lord Warburton, a landed gent, high of mind and broad of shoulder (played by a rather too wimpy Richard E. Grant), who means to install her as wife and mistress of all five of his country houses. Not Casper Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), the sulky American boy-toy who dogs Isabel through England and Italy. Not Isabel's terminally ill cousin, Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan, perfectly pitched between yearning and world-weary iconoclasm), who loves her "without hope," steers her into a large fortune and gives the excruciatingly introspective young woman the advice of a lifetime: "Live, and your character will take care of itself."

Why Isabel would spurn Ralph, a man so astute, morally sophisticated and physically attenuated that he can be none other than James himself, in favor of the sleazeball Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) in Rome, who marries her for money and all but destroys her, is one of the book's great questions.

Campion, with her radar for evil, focuses on the malevolent magnetism of Osmond, a man of "taste" who collects fine China and bullies women on the side. Malkovich has grown lazy coasting on reptile roles for years; here, Campion lifts him from mere competence into a performance of insidious power. This is a man who coops up his cowed daughter (Valentina Cervi) in a nunnery, heaps contempt on his flighty sister (a fine Shelley Duvall), and conveys displeasure by butting Isabel in the face with his nose.

Together, Malkovich and Barbara Hershey, who plays the scheming marriage broker Madame Merle, infuse the film with enough quiet menace to make your skin crawl and reduce poor Isabel to more weeping than a hundred appropriate suitors could ever occasion. Effective as these scenes are, their unfortunate consequence is to pare Isabel still further into a passive crybaby, thus rendering James--who embedded Isabel's attraction to Osmond deep within her complex and demanding character--a more persuasive feminist than Campion. He would relish the irony.

NOT TO LEVEL the ground between them, but in their own way, both James and Campion are master stylists. It's just that, aside from the scenes of classic beauty that roam from England to Italy and back (Stuart Dryburgh, who shot Campion's An Angel at My Table and the delirious The Piano, is incapable of an ugly frame), their styles mesh like ships passing in the night.

At regular intervals, Campion stamps the movie with a trickier, experimental visual grammar, inspired in its own way but designed to steal Isabel away from her creator. One undeniably diverting sequence in which Isabel travels the world, trying to make up her mind whether to marry Osmond, comes dressed in the antic caprice of a silent movie: Isabel, still wearing her worrywart frown, runs around the Middle East in Arab costume; beans on a plate grow lips and mimic Osmond's breathy I-love-yous.

Clever stuff, this, and refreshing for its comic mischief, but Campion can't stop there--she has to give Isabel an earthiness that makes perfect sense for a contemporary Campion heroine and none whatsoever for James' Archer. Bantering with Ralph after an excursion outdoors, Isabel bends to sniff her shoes. After turning away the third declaration of love, she rolls around on her bed and fantasizes being felt up by Warburton, Ralph and Goodwood, who then melt obligingly into her bedroom wall.

In the leery scene in which Osmond declares his intentions, Campion suggests that Isabel falls for him because, of all her suitors, he's the only one with the balls to steal a kiss without permission. And the wrenching pathos of Isabel's last, revelatory scene with the dying Ralph is marred by a carnality that's utterly irrelevant to and, finally, reductive of their chastely Jamesian love. Significantly, the grandly ambiguous "Oh my brother!" with which Isabel mourns her cousin in the book disappears from the otherwise respectful screenplay by Laura Jones.

It's precisely Campion's visual genius that makes her the least credible translator of James, for her Isabel is all exterior. She has no inner life, and inner life is what Henry James is all about. Idealized she may be, but James' Isabel is also a triumph of psychological realism whose character is evoked less by what she does than by the complexity of how she thinks and feels, how she responds to the suffocating gentility that surrounds her and how she falls into a desperate trap created by her own romantic illusions.

The freedom Isabel finally earns is internal, equivocal, infinitely more profound than anything in the movie's closing scene, in which Isabel runs in slo-mo cliché from the persistent Goodwood. A definitive Portrait of a Lady has yet to be made; it probably never will be, for Isabel Archer is novelistic to her core, and the novel that produced her is a masterpiece. Jane Campion has retooled it into a clever and inventive movie, even a sporadically faithful movie, but in the last analysis, no more than superior whimsy.

The Portrait of a Lady (PG-13; 150 min.), directed by Jane Campion, written by Laura Jones, based on the novel by Henry Jones, photographed by Stuart Dryburgh and starring Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich.

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro

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