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An Unflattering 'Portrait'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 17, 1997

I have sat through "The Portrait of a Lady" twice now, but I remain resolutely unmoved. Director Jane Campion's take on the Henry James novel is gorgeous to behold. Campion takes her images very seriously and indulges that attitude almost to a fault. The movie's well acted, too; Nicole Kidman's performance as the central heroine, Isabel Archer, is bound to garner attention.

But though Campion and writer Laura Jones reprise the highlights of the novel, "Portrait" is woefully free of all but its most banal significances and subtexts. And despite Isabel Archer's protracted sufferings, this picture is oddly un-charged, indistinct and even long-winded.

Before we even saunter into Europe in the 1870s, where the story is set, Campion goes off on a self-consciously arty tangent. We hear some contemporary female voices (including an Australian-accented one, which I took to be Kidman's) discussing love and the heady anticipation of a kiss. Then Campion presents us with a tableau of young, handsome women (also from the present-day) posed in and around a tree with low branches.

This is Campion's way of informing us that her feminist sensibilities will be figuring large in this interpretation. But it's not her gender-agenda that's the turnoff in this scene, it's her strident preciousness.

When the movie finally decides to join the 19th century, we're transported to the fine English house of Mr. Touchett (Sir John Gielgud), where Isabel Archer (Kidman), Touchett's American niece, has just arrived from across the Atlantic. She's about to embark on a new voyage, however, one of self-discovery and emancipation. At least, that's her still-forming idea. She begins this spiritual venture by rejecting the marriage proposal of Englishman Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant). As she explains to her ailing but highly supportive cousin, Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan), she wishes to get a "general impression of life" before marrying.

Ralph, clearly the mensch of the movie, admires Isabel's impulsive, determined and rather bold yearnings. Unable to attract her interest, he's content to love her from afar, while he suffers from acute consumption.

As with many classic literary heroines, Isabel is the victim of circumstance. When her dying uncle bequeaths his fortune to Isabel, she's free to do as she pleases. She sets course for Italy. But Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), Isabel's newly found, scheming friend, alerts her former lover, Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), to this vulnerable heiress. Gilbert, a predator in silk clothing, decides to seduce Isabel and live in the lap of luxury forever.

"Portrait" follows the book, in that Isabel succumbs to Osmond's charms. But the movie fails to make Isabel's decision convincing. It's hard to accept that Isabel -- who has rejected two handsome, highly eligible suitors, including one Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen) -- becomes easy prey for the 19th-century equivalent of a James Bond villain. As performed by Malkovich, Osmond is a bald, sleepy eyed lizard who speaks in mannered, icy tones. He seems to be a direct, but far-less effective, descendant of the manipulative lady-killer he played in "Dangerous Liaisons." But Isabel, for all her intelligence and independence, doesn't suspect a thing.

There's more to the story than this, of course. Campion sustains our interest just enough to see things through to the bitter end. There are some more cinematic intrusions for the art-house crowd, including a fantasy scene in which Isabel imagines she's being groped and fondled by Warburton, Goodwood and Cousin Ralph. Campion should be forever indebted to Janet Patterson's memorable production and costume design, Stuart Dryburgh's attractive cinematography (he also shot "The Piano" for Campion), and the performances. Kidman is convincingly vulnerable, although she commands our pity more than our deepest respect. Hershey delivers a superb dark-lady performance. And Donovan comes up with sensitive moments between coughing fits. But "Portrait" feels like an elegant party, full of attractive people, beautiful finery and tremendous music (from Wojiech Kilar), yet no excitement. And no matter how many times you revisit the place, it never gets better.

THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (PG-13) -- Contains sexual situations and momentary nudity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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