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

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