As literary films continue their wave of popularity, English authors Jane Austen and William Shakespeare are getting some competition from a giant with American roots: Henry James, whose novels are passing before the camera with unusual frequency these days. "Washington Square" will be in theaters before long, and "The Wings of the Dove" recently went into production.
Paving the way for them is a splendid adaptation that will be hard for the others to match. "The Portrait of a Lady," directed by Jane Campion, brings intelligence and sensitivity to a story rich in psychological subtlety and sociological detail.
Although a few scenes lapse into garden-variety melodrama or sentiment, the picture as a whole ranks with the year's most impressive achievements. It's also a better example of novel adaptation than other recent Austen pictures - "Emma" and "Persuasion" and "Sense and Sensibility" - since it translates the intellectual vigor of James's prose into an imaginative visual style. Campion's goal is to bypass mere prettiness in favor of a deeper resonance that's almost dreamlike in its immediacy.
The heroine is Isabel Archer, a young American visiting relatives at their comfortable English estate. A smart and attractive woman, if limited in her experience of the world, she soon finds herself rejecting marriage offers from a British aristocrat and an American traveler. Impressed by her independence and somewhat in love with her, a gentle but sickly cousin persuades her elderly uncle to settle a fortune on her in his will.
This should auger a bright future for Isabel, but life in a Henry James novel is rarely so simple. She falls under the spell of Gilbert Osmond, a smooth-mannered American with an overdeveloped ego and a passion for accumulating well-turned works of art. Prompted by a sensual old friend named Madame Merle, he decides that Isabel should join his collection of beautiful things. She marries him, somewhat to her own surprise, and spends the next portion of her life regretting the emotional trap in which he has ensnared her.
Writing about this novel in his notebook, James observed that the first chapters suffer from "a want of action." The same can't be said for Campion's movie. In the book, scores of pages go by before Isabel settles into her fully independent mode and sends her first suitors packing. In the film, she establishes her individualism before the opening credits are over. She and her story have too much energy for the sort of airy, ambling pace that literary movies often have. Campion and her screenwriter, Laura Jones, are right to tell her tale with no-nonsense efficiency.
First-rate performances also strengthen the film. Nicole Kidman, quickly becoming one of her generation's most versatile actresses, gives Isabel a blend of high intentions and unshakable naivete that James might well have applauded. John Malkovich brings his patented brand of insinuating malevolence to Osmond, her increasingly awful spouse, providing some of the film's most electric moments when he confronts Isabel with malice in his eyes and violence in his hands.
Barbara Hershey, who can accomplish any task the movie world could conceivably offer, is close to perfect as the enigmatic Madame Merle, and Martin Donovan shows new maturity as Isabel's invalid cousin. The lively supporting cast includes Mary-Louise Parker, Christian Bale, Shelley Duvall, and the wonderful Shelley Winters.
While the splendid acting and forceful storytelling of "The Portrait of a Lady" carry more than enough power to make it a success, special praise must go to Stuart Dryburgh for his superb camera work, colorful and atmospheric enough to dazzle the most jaded eye with its unexpected angles and immaculately chosen hues - not to mention a wild hallucination scene that recalls Campion's most adventurous gambits in "Sweetie" and "The Piano."
This visual expressiveness provides a cinematic equivalent for the precisely textured tones of James's prose, making this film not a mere shadow but a richly crafted reflection of the towering novel that inspired it.
'The Portrait of a Lady' has a PG-13 rating. It deals with adult themes and contains brief nudity and sensuality in a couple of scenes.