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

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    VB.Net Developer

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

    SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

    Java Developer

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a...

    SAP Functional Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £45,000 - £55,000.

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Functional ...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn