January 17, 1997 in Seven

Campion ‘Portrait’ Jane Campion Creates Her Own Work Of Art Based On James Novel

John Anderson Newsday
 

From the first moment of her new film, “The Portrait of a Lady,” Jane Campion draws a line in the sand. What we see are not Merchant-Ivory-fied damsels in erotic distress, but modern young women with confident, self-satisfied faces, spinning about, lying in the grass, staring at the camera, daring a question.

Theirs is a twofold image: Considering the intrigue to follow concerning Isabel Archer’s gain, loss, love and education at the hands of decadent Europe Campion is considering modern womanhood and saying look how far we’ve come. And, perhaps, isn’t it so much easier now?

Just as you will love or hate this opening indulgence, you will love or hate Campion’s film.

It is a starkly impressionistic take on Henry James’ famous novel, one in which the filmmaker’s vision is paramount and profoundly clear. Campion takes from James only what she wants and creates her own work of art, or art film, a pure exercise in expression. “The Portrait of a Lady” opens, and one feels as if one has been dropped into a movie that’s been running at least an hour.

Campion simply picks up the action at a point where Isabel is entertaining the proposal of the eminently reasonable Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), whom she will refuse just as has she has refused other similarly advantaged suitors. Isabel is set to travel on. And we are free to run alongside the train or fall onto the tracks and die.

We meet Mr. Touchett (John Gielgud), who in a stunning close-up sequence is convinced by his son Ralph (a terrific Martin Donovan) to leave Isabel money, which he does, we learn later.

But money, the social lubricant of their insular community, doesn’t accompany wisdom. And Isabel is led into a disastrous marriage to Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), who is abetted by the nefarious Madame Merle (the fabulous Barbara Hershey).

There’s a fascinating juxtaposition between Kidman and Malkovich, between the role of movie star and actor. Malkovich’s popular image is one of the maverick thespian, the rogue individualist, who in fact plays the same role time in and time out - just like a major movie star. Kidman on the other hand, is a major movie star who in fact has enormous range, talent and daring and keeps surprising people (like me) by just what a good actress she is.

What does this mean? Just that, as in “The Portrait of a Lady,” things are not always what they seem. And they don’t always work; Malkovich, for instance, who is tritely evil. Kidman, on the other hand, is terrific and Campion clearly loves her; the director shoots her star in such an adoring fashion that Kidman’s face takes on religious overtones.

Ultimately, however, Campion goes her own way so singlemindedly that she forgets about her audience. And this makes us tend to forget about her.

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. “The Portrait Of A Lady” Locations: Newport Cinemas Credits: Directed by Jane Campion, starring Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Donovan, Shelley Winters, Richard E. Grant, Shelley Duvall, Christian Bale, Viggo Mortensen, Valentina Cervi and John Gielgud Running time: 2:24 Rating: PG-13

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “The Portrait of a Lady:” Amy Dawes/Los Angeles Daily News: Because it won three Oscars in 1993, people are starting to forget what a peculiar and haunting movie “The Piano” was, and they are likely to come to “The Portrait of a Lady,” filmmaker Jane Campion’s new movie, expecting it to be mainstream and accessible. If so, Campion is going to throw them a curve ball. In this adaptation of Henry James’ 1881 novel, Campion is as challenging and eccentric a filmmaker as she was in her earliest works, and nothing, apparently … has deterred her from her highly personal approach. Henry Sheehan/The Orange County Register: In her filmmaking career, Jane Campion has managed to give us everything but the ordinary, so it’s a bit perplexing that in taking on the biggest literary adaptation of her career the director of “The Piano” and “Sweetie” has given us such a shockingly routine movie. Janet Maslin/New York Times: …Campion’s film stands as a fascinating experiment, alive with elements of imagination and surprise. For better or worse, with formidable intelligence, she appropriates this story as her own.

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. “The Portrait Of A Lady” Locations: Newport Cinemas Credits: Directed by Jane Campion, starring Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Donovan, Shelley Winters, Richard E. Grant, Shelley Duvall, Christian Bale, Viggo Mortensen, Valentina Cervi and John Gielgud Running time: 2:24 Rating: PG-13

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “The Portrait of a Lady:” Amy Dawes/Los Angeles Daily News: Because it won three Oscars in 1993, people are starting to forget what a peculiar and haunting movie “The Piano” was, and they are likely to come to “The Portrait of a Lady,” filmmaker Jane Campion’s new movie, expecting it to be mainstream and accessible. If so, Campion is going to throw them a curve ball. In this adaptation of Henry James’ 1881 novel, Campion is as challenging and eccentric a filmmaker as she was in her earliest works, and nothing, apparently … has deterred her from her highly personal approach. Henry Sheehan/The Orange County Register: In her filmmaking career, Jane Campion has managed to give us everything but the ordinary, so it’s a bit perplexing that in taking on the biggest literary adaptation of her career the director of “The Piano” and “Sweetie” has given us such a shockingly routine movie. Janet Maslin/New York Times: …Campion’s film stands as a fascinating experiment, alive with elements of imagination and surprise. For better or worse, with formidable intelligence, she appropriates this story as her own.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email