What Jane Campion did next

`The Piano' was a huge hit with the critics. Can Jane Campion repeat its success? Lee Marshall reports from Italy on her brave adaptation of James's `Portrait of a Lady'

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Campion is our greatest living woman film director. (But then, in all honesty, how many others spring to mind right now?) And it is an opinion whispered in some circles, after the astonishingly precocious achievements of An Angel at My Table (1990) and The Piano (1993) - the New Zealand director's second and third features - that Jane Campion might be turning into our greatest living director, full stop.

Campion's reputation, like that of an earlier Jane, rests on a slim body of work. Her juvenilia - one made-for-television movie (Two Friends), and a handful of inspired, wayward shorts - are as eagerly sought out by Campion junkies as Lady Susan or The Watsons are by Austen addicts. Her first feature film, Sweetie (1989) - the Campion Sense and Sensibility (though it's actually more of a Senseless and Insensitivity) - has become a cult classic with an extended video afterlife. Like most of Campion's films, Sweetie focuses on the raw cruelty and strangeness that lurk beneath a veneer of neatly mown lawns and cups of tea; it shows how the family and society in general both creates and then tries to ignore its own curses (represented in this case by the over-sexed, hyperactive Sweetie). So cruel and unflinching was this film's gaze that it was booed at the Cannes Film Festival - a reaction that devastated Campion, who tends to wear her hopes and fears on the outside, like flayed skin.

But An Angel at My Table changed all that. The autobiography of New Zealand writer Janet Frame - originally made as a three-part television mini-series - was perfect Campion material. It is essentially the story of a creative misfit, a woman who is diagnosed as schizophrenic, locked up and subjected to years of electroshock therapy simply because she tried to explain her despair to someone else. Grown film critics come over all dewy-eyed at the memory of the 30-minute standing ovation Angel received at the Venice Film Festival in 1990 - a reception which was confirmed by no fewer than seven awards.

And then, three years later, came The Piano. Nine Academy Award nominations (it bagged three), a chorus of critical praise, and more importantly, overwhelming audience endorsement reflected a general feeling that this was one of those rite-of-passage films - one of those films you use to date your memories. It may not have been The Sound of Music (unless you take Holly Hunter to be the demon sister of Julie Andrews) - but it provoked similar loyalties. There are those who have seen The Piano 20 times.

Which means, of course, that the time is ripe for a backlash. The day after Campion's new film - an adaptation of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady - was premiered at the Venice Festival, the film critic Alberto Crespi wrote in the Italian daily L'Unita: "Jane Campion has finally put a foot wrong." And he was not the only one to express some of the most relieved disappointment since Steffi Graf last served a double fault. The atmosphere of fully armed belligerence at the press screening was so thick you could have cut it with a chainsaw. As we shuffled in, the UK press rep warned me that "this is a film you need to be wide awake for" (subtext: it will send you to sleep). Afterwards, following some fairly perfunctory applause, the audience filed out in silence. You could spot the daily newspaper critics by the worried look in their eyes, a look which said: "for chrissakes, I've got a copy deadline - what the hell am I meant to think about this film?" It's not difficult to see why some of them opted for the put-down.

The Portrait of a Lady is a masterpiece - but, like a Francis Bacon triptych, not one you would necessarily want in your living-room. It is painful to watch. Part of this is to do with the actual look of the film: dark browns, green and blues predominate and claustrophobic interiors far outnumber the outdoor scenes ("Why did she bother to film on location in Italy?" one critic asked). Close-ups are so close that heads are sliced off at the top and you can see the pores. The use of wide-screen frame is essential to the effect: the focal point is generally off-centre, like the characters' relationships. It is a far more sombre affair than the novel.

But this is a film which renders the debate about faithfulness to the source text irrelevant. Jane Campion has not adapted Henry James's novel; she has digested it. This is clear right from the title sequence, which features a group of modern Aussie girls discussing love ("The best part of a kiss, I think, is when you see that head coming towards you"). The discipline of following somebody else's model means that Campion's penchant for symbolic imagery is kept on a tight leash; but it is allowed to escape occasionally. The heroine's "pilgrimage to the East" is condensed into a jerky, sepia silent comedy which features, at one point, a plateful of talking beans a la David Lynch. Another dream sequence has Isabel lying on her bed being kissed, touched and stroked by two of her suitors while the third looks on. Uh - hello? Henry James?

Even the lifting of large chunks of dialogue from the novel does not, somehow, tug the film away from its director's vision. Dialogue is more the exception than the rule in James; by extrapolating talk hedged around with the psychological push and nudge so familiar to his readers, so central to his prose style, you have already done him a violence more or less equivalent to that of removing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's speeches from Hamlet and filling in the gaps with something else. And indeed, in this austere and pared-back setting, certain exchanges do sound like out- takes from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, as when Isabel tells her aunt, Mrs Touchett, that "I always want to know the things one shouldn't do". "So as to do them?" asks her aunt. "So as to choose," Isabel replies.

And then there is Nicole Kidman. Henry James describes Isabel Archer as "very pretty indeed"; Campion manages to make Kidman look almost ugly. Her bundle of black frizzy hair and her scrubbed white face stand for plain-dealing but also for passion precariously held back with hairpins, for desire vainly denied by the absence of make-up. Anyone who remembers the hopelessly awkward, monstrously plain heroine of An Angel at My Table will see the echoes here, oddly modulated through the face and figure of a Hollywood superstar.

A curious feature of Campion's films is that it is easier to tell how well the supporting cast is acting than to evaluate the heroine's performance. John Malkovich is impressive as the ingeniously cruel Gilbert Osmond, and Barbara Hershey rescues her career from the doldrums with a finely judged rendering of the unhappy schemer, Madame Merle. But Kidman? Like Holly Hunter in The Piano, her brief is to keep everything bottled up inside, with just the tiniest flaw in the cork to judge her by. As the film progresses Isabel becomes increasingly inarticulate and unable to respond: when Gilbert shoves her so hard she falls over (he doesn't in the book), it seems that she is going to lapse into silence altogether. (Like The Piano, this film has a lot to say about what men do to women.) Hunter did impassioned silence brilliantly, but the Best Actress Oscar she won in 1993 begged the question: how much of that extraordinary performance was hers, how much the director's? Sam Neill once said that working with Campion "was like having a big safety net under me".

Finally, a warning: when the film finally emerges here in February, don't go to the cinema expecting yet another costume drama. If this is costume drama, it is costume drama laid bare; you can see the whalebone, and hear it crack. !

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