Film: Not a pretty picture

The Portrait of a Lady Jane Campion (12) by Adam Mars-Jones

The title object in Jane Campion's previous film, The Piano, suffered a number of indignities, notably being abandoned on a New Zealand beach. Now it's the turn of a no less lustrous item of cultural furniture, Henry James's novel The Portrait of a Lady, and though the story does reach the screen in a recognisable form, the film isn't the shining success that might have been hoped for.

Its nearest rival in recent cinema would have to be Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (adapted from the novel by James's friend and fellow American-in-exile, Edith Wharton), and the comparison is much to Campion's disadvantage. Scorsese's underrated film paid its characters the compliment of acknowledging that they didn't know they were living in the past. For them it was the present, and even if their hearts beat behind clothes we would not now find comfortable or think sensible, still their blood was freighted with primary excitement.

Jane Campion, by contrast, starts her film by emphasising the distance between then and now. Over the titles we hear modern women's voices, overlapping, describing how they feel about kissing, with a casual intensity unthinkable in the 19th century. The first images we see, likewise, are of contemporary women in a garden setting, in groups and on their own, the images alternating between black and white and colour. The effect is pretty in a Calvin Klein underwear-ad sort of way, but the film's opening, taken with the novel's story, seems to be saying: nowadays we can be honest about our feelings but, all the same, let us honour our long ago fictional sister, whose defeat in some paradoxical fashion paved the way to our expressive success.

In fact, James's novel has plenty of themes that have modern application, such as the way self-consciously intelligent people can be fooled by the simplest tricks, and how those who wish more than anything to be free devise elaborate traps for themselves. It's almost a delicious moment in the film, rather than a shattering one, when, at last, the heroine Isabel Archer is told by her dizzy sister-in-law, played by Shelley Duvall, how thoroughly she has been deceived by her husband.

Nicole Kidman makes a very good job of the heroine, conveying at the beginning a faint but profound restlessness that won't let her be still. It may possibly have occurred to the actress how well she looks in the styles of the 1870s, with her thick hair up. That hair is intricately braided when Isabel is established in her hideous marriage, a time when her only consolation is to present herself as an object of value. But earlier on it was more casually arranged and regarded. At one point, she playfully balanced a candlestick on top of it.

Campion has a gift for lightly accenting a moment or image so that it stands out from the even re-creation of period: gentlemen's top hats being rapidly arranged on a sort of grid in the cloakroom of a Roman palazzo, or an attendant with a whistle in an English museum who blows a sharp blast on it whenever visitors threaten to finger the effigies. What she can't quite do in film language is approximate to the grand hesitations of James's style, its huge suspensions of resolution. The most successful moments in the film, though, are when she tries to do just that, as when Isabel enters a room where someone is playing Schubert, and the camera for a long moment refuses us the sight of the person at the piano. There's a wonderful scene in a London club, where a young American who pursued Isabel in America comes to seek her out. She asks him to leave throughout the encounter, but at some stage he puts his hand on her cheek. This we see only after the event, not as something happening but something that has already happened, and it altogether changes the way we understand the dialogue.

Then Jane Campion has to spoil it all, after the young man has gone, by giving Isabel a sensual daydream. It's fine that she should wonderingly stroke her cheek, and effective that she should let her forehead be caressed by the tassels that hang down from the canopy of the four-poster bed. But then she imagines simultaneous sexual activity with three men, the one who's just left and two others. Virginal women in the last century may have had specific erotic imaginations, but Henry James would have been the last to know it if they did, and the story he chooses to tell is of a woman undone by high-mindedness, by the assumption that her integrity is the general state. The phantom lovers disappear, fading in a rainbow of pixels, but the damage has been done.

John Malkovich smoulders to good effect as Osmond, the deceiver who marries her, his aggression at first masked, revealed only to his unhappy co-conspirator Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey). But by the end of the film we know his violence, and we understand that the offer of a cushion precedes and implies a beating. Campion provides one more sublime effect of poetic technique, during Osmond's seduction of Isabel. He holds the parasol she has left behind and twirls it, then Campion cuts unexpectedly from her side of the encounter to his. By the end of the scene, the shadow of the parasol on the ground has come to seem an engulfing darkness.

Isabel doesn't yield to Osmond right away, but his declaration haunts her on her journeying. It may be that Henry James was hard put to convey sexual obsession, but Jane Campion's ideas here are jarring. Not only does she film Isabel's grand tour in the manner of the early movies that wouldn't exist for another quarter-century, but she builds up to an image that irresistibly recalls films by Bunuel and Dali, and a yet more drastic level of anachronism: a plate of what looked like broad beans, each endowed with John Malkovich's lips and intoning "I am absolutely in love with you". No wonder Isabel faints.

Yet those lips on a plate seem to have won her over. When next we see her, she has married Osmond. From this point on, the film language begins to coarsen: it is striking to see Isabel's skirts flailing and churning behind her, as if with a desperation of their own, when she runs down a corridor. But when it comes to filming her in slow motion as she passes through the gloomy gates of her home, a prisoner returning to captivity after the day-release of Rome, metal clanging behind her, some subtle power has been evaporated along the way. The character has lost her grip on an audience's sympathies, or perhaps a gifted director has lost her grip on a mightily elusive noveln

On release from tomorrow

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

    £16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

    Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

    £7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high