Movies & TV / Columns

Nether Regions 08.03.10: The Portrait of a Lady

August 3, 2010 | Posted by Chad Webb

Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.



Starring: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, and Barbara Hershey
Directed By: Jane Campion
Written By: Laura Jones
Running Time: 144 minutes
Release Date: December 24, 1996
Missing Since: 1997
Existing Formats: OOP DVD and VHS
Netflix Status: Not Available
Availability: Very Rare – Hard to Buy and Watch

The Portrait of a Lady is a saga about the manipulation and deceit that can arise through love and marriage. It follows a woman whose romantic ideals of European cultures have turned into heartbreak and calamity. The heroine, Isabel Archer, is a clever and spirited woman that has denied all offers of marriage because she fears she will miss out on other chances. She is a character that means well, and has proper intentions, but the good fortune she falls into leads to a loss of control over her own life. The phrase “you must lie in the bed you make” also applies, as Isabel must accept that by the conclusion.

Viggo Mortensen’s Caspar wants
him some Isabel.

The film was directed by Jane Campion, and was the follow-up feature to her massively touted, awarded, and overrated The Piano from 1993. The Portrait of a Lady would act as a kind of turning point in Campion’s career. She would move away from dark period pieces at least until Bright Star was released in 2009, but it also showed her focusing more heavily on the sexual boldness and troubles of females. Campion has always been more at home in this type of atmosphere, with the detailed costumes, lavish locations, and the complex desires of her lead women. The Portrait of a Lady fall squarely in the middle of her resume, and has sadly been forgotten. Though not spotlessly clean, it is a profound study of greed, betrayal, and misguided goals.

Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) is an orphaned American who values, above all else, her freedom. She travels to Europe with some rich relatives to explore not only the country, but it’s men, and herself. Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant) and Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen) have both made their love for her quite clear, but one is too perfect and the other well, never goes away. Her cousin, Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan), also has strong feelings for her, but he keeps them hidden for a number of reasons. One thing Ralph does for Isabel is requesting his father (John Gielgud) leave her a hefty sum in his will. This new money attracts the attention of many people, including Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), whom Isabel strikes a friendship with immediately, and Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), whose intensity seduces her. Her relationship with these two changes Isabel, and the way others view her. She realizes the truth of Merle and Osmond, but it could be too late.

The Portrait of a Lady was originally a novel by Henry James, a writer who is regarded as one of the key figures in literary realism. Most of his novels deal with the precise situation in this movie, which is the association of Americans and Europeans. He understood this first hand since he spent 40 years of his life in that position. Like all “classic” adaptations, one of the primary criticisms for Campion’s version is how the content on the pages translated to the big screen. A book that is over 600 pages was condensed to a 144-minute film, so it goes without saying that a lot was left out. Lovers of James will cry about the omitted content, and claim that those unfamiliar will not comprehend everything necessary.

Many of the reviews from 1996, even those that were praiseworthy, cite the differences between the novel and film without hesitation. This can be a tough line to walk because it is essential to make the reader aware that you are not disparaging the film just because it is not exactly the same as the book. Faithfulness is important, but not the sole priority. Certain aspects of the story were cut, and sometimes the characters will be altered. This comes with the territory. These films are based on the books, and that means the director can do what they feel is right. Knowing that, Jane Campion and screenwriter Laura Jones deliver a competent and enthrallingly succinct motion picture that was not all confusing.

The opening credits begin with a voice-over featuring seven contemporary Australian women ruminating about kissing and love. Its insertion is strange, but Campion is attempting to connect the nature of women from the 1870’s to those of the 1990’s. This is a message that was better left unsaid so blatantly, but the honesty of it is undeniable. The title is found scrolled on the hand of a woman, and comes up on a bunch of women dancing in a forest. It then quickly zooms by until the end of the voice-over shifts to a shot of Nicole Kidman’s face as Isabel Archer. At the start of her journey to confront her destiny, Isabel is 23 years old. Nicole Kidman was almost 30 at the time, but the precise age is not nearly as crucial as the general time period covered is. Isabel is at the precipice of deciding her future and is unsure of what that might entail. Many of us can sympathize with that.

Six years into her marriage with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman’s star was still rising at this point. Her best efforts were still ahead of her, but working with a skilled female director like Jane Campion was a wonderful step of advancement. Her bravura performance as Isabel further cemented her ability to command the screen as a star and heightened her range. The most fascinating part of Isabel, and the inherent manner Kidman portrays her, is observing the contrast of her attitude before and after Merle and Osmond enter. Campion’s prevalence toward close-ups augments the believability and steadfastness of Kidman’s turn. This was a year of many adaptations and period pieces, thus Kidman probably got lost in the shuffle for any awards consideration, but she never misses a beat, and that is still unmistakable today.

A picture of one cover
for the Henry James novel.

The Portrait of a Lady sports the strongest cast of any Campion offering, and luckily none of the accents are overly exaggerated. Backing up Kidman are John Malkovich and Barbara Hershey (who received an Oscar nom here). Malkovich plays Gilbert Osmond as an artist with sadistic tendencies that eats away at the youthful intelligence of Isabel. Osmond is a serpent that has been waiting for the adequate prey, and Madame Merle makes that possible. Malkovich is magnificent as the villain, but he’s also an authentic one, filled with conviction. Barbara Hershey is subtly brilliant and galvanizing as Merle, a woman who is introduced to Isabel as honorable and independent, but who suppresses her own sadness. The role comes as second nature to Hershey. Her finest moments are only seriously unleashed near the end, especially during a heated exchange with Osmond over what has transpired.

Martin Donovan (an accomplished stage actor) was not well known at this juncture of his cinematic career, but he is moving and matchless as Ralph Touchett, the man who has Isabel’s best interests at heart. He genuinely adores her, but Donovan’s performance thankfully does not spell that out. Viggo Mortensen is solid as Caspar Goodwood, the hounding man who is not as much of a nuisance as he seems. Richard E. Grant is meritorious as Lord Warburton, the distinguished gentleman that is worried Isabel will not like his moat. Christian Bale is powerful as Edward Rosier, the hopeful suitor to Osmond’s daughter Pansy. John Gielgud is terrific as Mr. Touchett, a father who wants Isabel and his son to be happy. Mary Louise-Parker is the main weak link as Henrietta Stackpole. Parker has difficulty landing any line, and does not look comfortable in a late 1800’s tale. Lastly, Shelley Winters and Shelley Duvall have small but fitting roles as Mrs. Touchtett and Countess Gemini.

This is a film saturated with fervent scenes. Watching the free-spirited Isabel, a sharp person, crumble at the feet of the calculating Gilbert Osmond is extraordinary. When trying to win her over, he talks about how he would love to see her temper, and she responds by saying she rarely loses her temper. He replies, “You don’t lose your temper, you find it.” Malkovich is like a springboard that boosts all of the other performances. He corners her alone later in a dark area and professes his love. It’s a menacing sequence in a creepy place because of Gilbert’s agenda. Another exceptionally staged sequence is a ball where both Warburton and Rosier are aiming for Pansy’s hand. While that is going on, the escalating temperature and the corsets the women are wearing are causing frequent fainting spells, and everyone has a fan handy.

The structure is biggest flaw for Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady. In the middle, after a significant event occurs, the plot jumps ahead three years, and Pansy has suddenly become more noteworthy. It is somewhat jarring, but finds its grove fairly quickly again. An earlier leap in time displays Isabel’s yearlong journey of traveling in a black & white montage. Campion had to delete some of the excess somewhere, and unfortunately this progression can be bumpy. The ending too has been changed, but the open-ended facets of it are effective. On the surface, a few loose ends were not wrapped up neatly, but that is not entirely true, and Campion handles it adeptly.

Isabel and Madame Merle
discuss their fondness of
English rain.

Campion’s approach is intriguing. Her propensity for close-ups undoubtedly aids the cast, and the viewers bond with the characters, but many scenes in The Portrait of a Lady are shot at oddly skewed angles, such as examining a group walking up steps from a tilted point of view on the side looking up. Others alternate from pointing directly skyward to aiming down from above. Still, the story never lags, and regardless of its similarities to Jane Austen romances, this is decidedly bleaker and more sinister than Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, or anything related. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography transitions from optimistic and bright to eerie and chilling in a beautifully peculiar and level fashion.

The dismal tone for The Portrait of a Lady works because the events make more of an impact and linger. Campion’s line of attack is daring and unnerving, instead of playful and synthetic. This is the type of film Merchant-Ivory might make if they woke up on the wrong side of the bed, or weren’t so regimented. Campion does not limit her adaptation to its set design, weighty dialogue, and colorful costuming. The intricacies of the characters and the depth of the story take the forefront. This is a well-orchestrated film from start to finish with only a couple missteps. This is a confident, elegant, and visually conscientious trip.

Instead of settling for conformity, Campion is risky, and that is no more evident than in during an integrated dream sequence where Isabel fantasizes about all of the men who desire her. Campion did not want this to be a dime a dozen adaptation, or a throw away product just to appease purists. She elects for a touchier slant, and The Portrait of a Lady will stick with you as a result. This was released on DVD way back in 1997, and for some reason has gone out of print. I’d love for it to be re-released with some extras, but unless a streak of Henry James adaptations begins sometime soon, I wouldn’t hold my breath for this to pop up in stores. Nonetheless, I highly recommend you seek this out. If this is a genre you appreciate, this will be a fulfilling experience. Campion has proven that there is no woman she cannot paint a portrait of, especially one from the mind of Henry James.

Final Rating = 8.0/10.0

Out of Print
The Heartbreak Kid
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV)
The Stepfather 3
America, America
Salem’s Lot
Latin Lovers
State Fair (1933)
Sleuth (1972)
Johnny Guitar
Children of the Corn 2: The Final Harvest
High Noon Part II: The Return of Will Kane
The Prehysteria! Trilogy
Only Yesterday
Ocean Waves
The Little Norse Prince
Breaking the Waves
Cruel Story of Youth
The Magnificent Ambersons

Now Available
The African Queen
A Return to Salem’s Lot – Available Through Warner Archives
Phantasm II
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – All Versions Available
The Stepfather
The Stepfather 2

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