After completing The Piano, Jane Campion was at what you might call a bit of a crossroads. The story goes that she'd been wanting to make that film for virtually her entire career; and it took her hardly any time to earn the clout to make it just the way she wanted. The result was one of the most well-regarded films of its decade, the recipient of a Palme d'Or, and Campion became the second woman in history nominated for a Best Director Oscar, among countless other awards from countless other sources. So, where the hell are you supposed to go from there?
For Campion, it was to flee the Australia/New Zealand cradle where every one of her films to that point had been made, and set herself to an adaptation of one of the most famous works of 19th Century American fiction. The result was The Portrait of Lady, and a most peculiar thing at that: there's something about it that feels definitively different than any of Campion's films up to that point, though it's hardly correct to suggest that it feels like the work of anybody else. It's an easy thing to dislike, I suppose, and even easier to find it absolutely fascinating. As much a commentary on the process of adapting Henry James's novel to film as it is a proper adaptation - I am entirely willing to agree with the conventional wisdom that it's a "failed" adaptation, for that matter - Campion's drama plays by none of the rules that governed most of those 1990s prestige literary films, and thus is much more vital and alive 13 years later than just about any of them. Or, to put it bluntly: I would watch The Portrait of a Lady ten times again before I'd revisit The English Patient even once, and I'd enjoy it a whole hell of a lot more.
The lady of the title is Isabel Archer, played by Nicole Kidman just at the start of her transition from "pretty, but completely unmemorable, beard for Tom Cruise" to "significant actress worthy of continued attention" (To Die For was a year earlier; Eyes Wide Shut was still three years in the future). Isabel is an American living in England, at the country estate of Mr Touchett (John Gielgud), married to her aunt (Shelley Winters). It is understood that Isabel is a particularly desirable woman; we already know this as she is played by Nicole Kidman, but just to make absolute sure we can tell, James (and by extension, the film) gives us several men chasing her hand: Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), who followed her from America; Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant) who makes her a most generous - according to the English sense of such things - offer of marriage; even her sick, dying cousin, Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan) has a more-than-familial affection for her.
In the midst of this storm of courtship, Isabel manages to pick up a seeming friend in the form of Mme Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey), a fellow American who for no reason better described than "her own private amusement" sees fit to throw Isabel - by this point the recipient of a most generous inheritance from Mr. Touchett - into the path of Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), an art collector of mysterious passions and character. Isabel is attracted to his aloofness, his exoticism if you will, and despite her strong intention to remain single as long as possible, marries him and becomes stepmother to his young daughter Pansy (Valentina Cervi), newly released from an Italian convent. Since this is ultimately based upon a 19th Century novel, things do not remain happy for Isabel for very long.
Not to put arguments in anyone's mouth, or anything, but a startling number of criticisms of Campion's film seem to start from the point that it isn't James's novel. Speaking personally, I'm not terribly bothered by that; I certainly have no problem with Henry James, and The Portrait of a Lady is a fine work (though it always struck me, for some indefensible reason, as weak mimicry of George Eliot), but I've never quite followed the argument that it's a great masterpiece, and at any rate its best element - psychological representation - is exactly the sort of thing that is virtually impossible to depict cinematically. At any rate, "not enough like the book!" is an appallingly lazy form of criticism, if one that I have not always evaded myself. Writing off Campion's Portrait as "unworthy of James" misses nearly all of what makes it strange and necessary and characteristic of the woman who directed it, rather than the man who wrote the novel it's based upon.
The key scene in the film is the very first, and one that - to put it mildly - doesn't appear in James's novel. We first hear a young woman speaking with an Australian accent, describing the feeling of the moment just before being kissed; and then another and another. After a minute of just this, black with the actors' names and these girls speaking, the film cuts to a black and white image of several women on a lawn from above, scrambling out of the center of the frame to make room for the words, "a film by Jane Campion". For the next minute, or a few seconds longer, as the credits trickle out, there are several other shots of young women - I am absolutely terrible at guessing ages, but I'd say they're all in their late teens and early twenties - mostly sitting and watching the camera, or perhaps swaying and dancing slightly (most, not all of the shots are also in black and white), while a lilting, ever-so-vaguely Celtic theme by Wojciech Kilar plays underneath. It is ethereal and beautiful, and I would have watched it for half an hour, but it must end, and it does so with a really overwhelming cut to a full-color close-up of Kidman's face, alarmed and plainly on the brink of tears, and it gets closer: eventually only her noticeably bloodshot eyes fill the frame.
This is a massively brave way to open a period drama from the days when period dramas weren't encouraged to be especially inventive (you know... the whole 110+ year history of the cinema. Those days). Simultaneously connecting Isabel Archer with modern-day women of about the same age and presumably the same prospects (her face is framed just like theirs are), and drawing a sharp distinction between them (the cut to color is exceedingly jarring), that sequence tells us most of what we need to know about Campion's approach to this material. On the one hand, she is simply (and obviously) telling us that Isabel, with her famously Jamesian independence and freedom of thought, is the forerunner to these her spiritual descendants. On the other, Isabel is being clearly and irrevocably separated from them, a fixed point in the past divided from an endlessly possible present (not for nothing do the young Australians stare directly at us - asserting their "realness" - while Isabel is looking to the side, demonstrating that she is in the fake reality of a movie).
Rolling forward from that moment, the shot of Isabel ends with the sound of cracking underbrush; we cut to the image of a man's boots, the rest of his body obscured by trees; we only now realise that she is sitting in a small stand of trees; presumably hiding; presumably from him. Thus we are introduced to the other key idea of the film: that Isabel is a hunted animal. This leads into the film's treatment of Isabel herself, and it's here that Campion takes her greatest departure from James (I suspect that Laura Jones's screenplay probably is closer to the novel than the finished film in this respect): the heroine is always kept at a distinct distance, a far cry from in the novel, in which she is held so close to the reader that we are frequently lost inside her mind (and for that matter, a far cry from Campion's earlier work; perhaps the reason so many fans of The Piano, which burrows so deeply into Ada's soul, are on the whole lukewarm towards Portrait). On the whole, this is a chilly film: Stuart Dryburgh's camera, so inviting in An Angel at My Table and so passionate in The Piano, renders this vision of Europe in hushed colors and cruel, harsh divisions of light and darkness.
I have spent some days mulling over this treatment of Isabel Archer, and I do not think I have settled upon a reading completely satisfying in all respects. But this is my best guess: rather than simply adapting James's novel, Campion is subjecting it to a modernist analysis. James, a product of his time and culture, presented Isabel's suffering throughout the story as a trigger for our sympathy and pity; Campion treats the suffering as an object, and asks, "why?" Why, that is, does Isabel subject herself to the things she must suffer through this film, why not keep standing on her strong individualist principles. If there are answers to that question in the film, I have not puzzled them out, but the mere fact that the film serves in some way as a critical discussion of the prose text is enough to make this more than just another Oscarbait costume drama.
As far as all this goes, I could be quite passionate about The Portrait of a Lady, while understanding why it's so generally unloved. But the rubber has to meet the road somewhere, and there are flaws with the film's execution - significant ones, enough to leave the film squarely in the category of "problematic", though in much the same way that scholars consider certain Shakespearean plays problems - not as a criticism, but as a description. The most obvious issues are in the casting: and the most obvious there is John Malkovich. Apparently cast because he's playing a very similar character to his Valmont from Dangerous Liaisons, there are manifold issues with putting him in this role. For a start, he is an actor with a certain kind of presence and persona that makes him impossible for the character as either James or Jones wrote him; Osmond is meant to be dangerously seductive, but Malkovich, from the first frame, is a callous monster. And that is the second half of the problem: he seems to be inhabiting a manifestly different film than everyone else, certainly different than Hershey, who is quite excellent in the main, but whose scenes with her co-villain never cohere at all.
And I must confess myself sad to say that I don't much care for Kidman, either. She's about 90% perfect for Isabel, especially as Campion has redefined the character, but there's one key point shared by the novel and the film: Isabel is an American, essentially and immutably. That is the whole point of the thing, that the fiercely freethinking American girl is seduced and crushed by a blasé, corrupt Europe. But Kidman, even to this point, has never been a very convincing American; her bearing is too aristocratic, and her command of accents is wobbly at best, embarrassing at worst. There are films where this doesn't matter, or even where it's made to work (Eyes Wide Shut), but this just isn't one of those, and so a performance that is nearly great manages to collapse because of the wee small gap in that "nearly".
There are of course a handful of other issues in the film: the second half hinges on a subplot - Pansy's infatuation with a certain Edward Rosier (Christian Bale) - that isn't fleshed out enough to be worthy of the considerable screentime devoted to it, the score (after that main theme) is strictly by-the-books costume drama boilerplate, and two characters - Caspar Goodwood and Henrietta Stackpole (Mary-Louis Parker) - are reduced to mostly irrelevant walk-ons. But this is compensated for by the high caliber of the production, by Campion and Dryburgh's wickedly precise compositions, and by Campion's conceptual audacity.
So, is it successful or not? I don't quite know, though I think the answer is "yes"; a lot depends on the follow-up question, "successful at what?" I do know that it's damned interesting, which is better than successful nine times of ten, and that for all that it simply doesn't feel much like a Campion film or a James adaptation, it plays honestly by the set of rules that the director set for the project. It is, as I said, easy to dislike, and very hard to love; but not for a second would I think of trading it for anything else.