FAfter the award-winning and groundbreaking triumph of The Piano in 1993, hopes could not have been higher for Jane Campion’s follow-up. Based on Henry James’ most beloved novel, The Portrait of a Lady seemed on paper like a critical slam dunk. Yet the film was widely dismissed upon release, with contemporary critics describing it as “pretentious,” “slow” and “infuriating.” It was also a commercial failure, losing money at the box office.
Adapted by Laura Jones, who previously wrote the screenplay for Campion’s An Angel at My Table in 1990, The Portrait of a Lady is a fascinating outlier in historical Hollywood dramas of the 90s. Corsets and eager looks are all there, but Campion imbues his film with anachronistic twists and narrative changes that seemingly upset James purists. Her dense prose and carefully layered critique of American exceptionalism has been reshaped by the director based on her own thematic concerns, as well as her keen sense of sensuality.
The title of the film could easily describe all of Campion’s filmography – stories of women fighting against patriarchal boundaries and struggling to satisfy their desires, whether sexual (In the Cut), artistic (The Piano) or spiritual (Holy Smoke). Campion creates stories centered on brilliant women who are immersed in experiences that force them to question their own identities.
Nicole Kidman’s Isabel Archer, a fiercely motivated but naive heiress who finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage, is cut from the same fabric as the Campion heroines who preceded and followed in her footsteps – the main difference being that Isabel was there. does not succeed; his freedom is outright denied.
“Like many of Campion’s heroines, Isabel’s nerve and full of ideas make her vulnerable to manipulation by malicious men.”
Isabel defies narrow societal expectations by turning down marriage proposals from a series of perfectly acceptable suitors. Then, cuddled by her supposed friend, the ruthless Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), she falls head over heels in love with Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), a callous art collector who lets down his romantic facade the moment they get married. Kidman visibly fades as the tale unfolds, capturing Isabel’s transformation into the kind of miserable and trapped woman she had always feared.
Like many of Campion’s heroines, her nerve and solid ideas make her vulnerable to manipulation by malicious men. Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) of Piano is punished for her sins by the removal of a finger – an act of artistic castration – while Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) of Holy Smoke is denied her religious awakening by her ignorant family, who hires a deprogrammer to “straighten it out”. Ultimately, however, these women are entitled to a chance at redemption and a return to freedom. Isabel is not. She does not triumph over sexism and does not take revenge on those who have wronged her. His life is kind of flying away.
As in the novel, the exact direction Isabel will take is ambiguous: will she return to Osmond to protect her abused daughter, or will she give up everything to be free? – but for Campion, his sadness seems assured. She is not dead but something that comes close to it. Even Madame Merle, who facilitated Isabel’s wedding, admits: “I know you are very unhappy, but I am even more so. There is no retribution for any of the women here.
The Portrait of a Lady is also notable for the way Campion and Jones reimagine James’ novel: Isabel’s travels around the world, which occupy much of the book, are distilled into a silent film full of jerky movements. and accelerated; while considering her options, she fantasizes about her three main suitors putting her to bed at the same time, a daring demonstration of her self-reliance before marriage; the film opens with young female voices discussing the meaning of love before the credits roll on a group of decidedly modern women frolicking in idyllic green.
This urgent take on a deeply introspective tale illustrates Campion’s dedication to showing the experiences and struggles of women through all eras. Women’s stories, alas, remain much the same through the centuries – but their dissection should be as fierce and determined as the heroines at their center.
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