Portrait of a Lady
directed by Jane Campion
(Gramercy Pictures, 1996)

Audience opinion on Henry James is divided: Is he the ultimate turn-of-the-century novelist or the ultimate insomnia cure?

His characters are invariably people who have too much money for their own good, and, consequently, too much time for their own good. They usually waste that time either collecting art or marrying for more money so they can collect more art; and more often than not they sport clumsy-coded names like Mrs. Touchett and Mr. Goodwood.

Physical movement is kept to a minimum: An occasional waltz is about as much action as you can hope for. James can make much ado over the passing of a parasol. Even his titles -- such as Portrait of a Lady -- have a static quality to them.

But if he's static, he can also be hypnotic, as director Jane Campion demonstrates in her Portrait of a Lady.

The lady in this case is Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), the American cousin of wealthy Lord Touchett (John Gielgud). Touchett, upon his death, makes Archer -- note the clumsily-coded name -- one of England's wealthiest women, and one of its most pursued.

Initially she rejects marriage in favor of multiple erotic fantasies, but all that changes with her introduction to Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), the man who wrote the manual on manipulation.

Osmond is a penniless -- and no doubt talentless -- artist who makes his living by having better taste than anyone else in Florence, including the widow Touchett, who keeps a winter home there.

Miss Archer soon marries Mr. Osmond, and The Portrait of a Lady quickly becomes a study in psychological cruelty.

It takes a special talent to make an interesting film of a James novel. Fortunately, Campion has that talent.

For in James' "internal action," or psychological drama, Campion finds many of the themes that enlivened her earlier triumph, The Piano: the dangers of repressing sexuality; the place of women in the 19th-century society; the hollowness of the material lifestyle. And Kidman is the perfect Campion champion: she has the ability to look tightly drawn at the very moment she's about to burst forth.

No less effective is Malkovich, a man who could put a mean face on Santa Claus. Sporting Freud's forehead and Lenin's beard, he embodies in his emaciated frame all the terrors of male domination, in this century or the last.

Moreover, Campion maximizes James' "internal action" with powerful external locations: a dusky London and even duskier Florence and Rome.

Everywhere Archer goes, it seems, art and history look down over her shoulder. And no parting of characters is without the echo of measured footsteps or a projectile exit line.

Portrait of a Lady is an odd piece: a mystery without a body, an epic struggle waged entirely within two people's wills. Its characters speak in whole sentences and never take off their clothes.

With a little less verve, Campion could have made a movie that would have put James to sleep. Fortunately for film buffs, she keeps her Portrait well oiled -- and tightly framed.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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