But it's not a very good likeness

Her brilliant career? After 'The Piano', director Jane Campion turns to Henry James's 'The Portrait of a Lady' for inspiration

Kevin Jackson
Sunday 02 March 1997 00:02 GMT

Any competent Mills & Boon editor would have sent back Henry James's manuscript for The Portrait of a Lady (12) festooned with blue pencil- marks and angry marginalia: not only is the thing far too long and depressing, the bumbling amateur of a novelist barely so much as mentions those delicious, all-important late stages of courtship between Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond, and leapfrogs entirely over all the Hello!-style details of bridesmaids, trousseau, reception and honeymoon. But had our hypothetical editor seen the dour nightmare Jane Campion would make of the same events, James's fastidious elisions might have seemed positively dewy-eyed.

Cinema, even posh cinema, abhors a narrative vacuum, and Campion has chosen to plug the gap between Isabel's maiden and married states with a black- and-white fantasia of tormented eroticism, which begins with a pastiche of period home-movies of Europe and North Africa (we must allow a bit of filmic license here, since the Lumiere Brothers would not invent their apparatus until 22 years after Miss Archer's nuptials), concludes with a homage to the Saul Bass dream sequence from Vertigo (the naked Nicole Kidman plunges from the inky heavens) and attains its most spectacularly un-Jamesian note in the vision of a plate of mussels, (or maybe broad beans with ragged mouths), chanting Gilbert Osmond's mendacious words "I am absolutely in love with you" in unison. Hello, Dali. (Query for scholars: did William James ever give his brother Henry a go at the nitrous oxide or other mind-altering substances?)

It seems safe to infer that absolute fidelity to James's text was not high on Jane Campion's agenda, especially since the film's overture is set in the present day, and displays a dreamy montage of young antipodean ladies, talking in voiceover about their Mills & Boony romantic ideals as they loll around a wood; an autobiographical flourish on the director's part, perhaps, and something which should make pedants think twice about their sniffs and quibbles. But there are still reasons for squirming a little at some of the paths she has chosen to tread.

The Portrait of a Lady isn't altogether a crass reading of James - on the contrary, some of it is quite bravely understated, even to the point of risking the charge of "dingy" (one of Osmond's disdainful adjectives) - but it has its fair share of dismaying moments, such as the auto-erotic hallucination newly provided for Isabel after she has spurned Caspar Goodwood. Left alone, Isabel drifts around the room discreetly touching herself until the three men in her life to date - Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), Lord Warburton (Richard E Grant) and Ralph Touchett (the truly wonderful Martin Donovan, here a ringer for Robert Louis Stevenson in his velvet jacket and aesthete's moustache) - appear out of nowhere, pawing at and slobbering over her until they dematerialise as if beamed up by Scotty. Campion's textual warrant for this slab of soft porn appears to be the phrase "Vibration was easy to her, was in fact too constant with her, and she now found herself humming like a smitten harp", so we've probably been let off lightly.

Such lyrical self-amusement jars not because it is too sexually explicit but because it is too thematically explicit. Where James hints, hesitates or insinuates, Campion shoves her meanings right in your face, much as Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) nastily grates his own bearded features against Isabel's porcelain cheekbones. Whatever else she sees in James's story and characters, Campion plainly sees the word "repression" writ large and fiery, and sequence after sequence labours the idea - in an early scene set in a museum, for example, where the patriarchal guard blows his whistle angrily at Isabel and her friend Henrietta Stackpole (Mary-Louise Parker) as they bend down to touch an effigy. The film, as one would expect of the director of The Piano, has very few Heritage moments, and those few always bear a sardonic touch: when she stages a ballroom sequence, Campion cuts sourly to shots of ladies who are not just glowing with exertion but collapsing in overheated heaps.

In similar spirit, Campion signals her unconventional approach with almost every shot. It's hard to think of another mainstream director who would introduce Florence in an establishing shot crammed with glowing fog, or would film a master shot of the Baptistry at a wildly oblique angle which then lurches violently to the side like a drunken sailor. Oblique angles crop up so frequently in the film that you leave the cinema with a crick in your neck; and when she's not shooting on the slant, Campion favours extreme close-ups of faces and hands, sometimes refracted or reflected in glass. You'd not mistake Campion's work for Masterpiece Theater fodder, though its distinctiveness is more sure than its distinction.

The Portrait of a Lady is a serious, not to say solemn piece of work by a director of uncommon talent, and it disappoints in the way that only such ambitious work can. For the most part, it keeps an admirably cool emotional tenor, but in the long run the coolness is a dampener; and the film has a terrible hole in its middle, by the name of John Malkovich. In the novel, Gilbert Osmond is a fascinating monster of groundless narcissism; Malkovich's inert performance renders him simply a crashing bore. And though Nicole Kidman is dignified to the point of nobility in the central role, there's not much in her performance to suggest the agonising growths in Isabel's spirit. It's easier to respect than admire the film: though there's more thoughtfulness to be found in single frames of The Portrait of a Lady than can be unearthed from the entire running time of many big frock dramas, not all of those thoughts seem worth entertaining.

The week's other period film, directed in far more workaday style by Nicholas Hytner, would decidedly not look out of place on Masterpiece Theater. The Crucible (12) is a competent, uncontroversial, rather shouty version of a play which is now safely canonical and, if the philistinism may be forgiven, less remarkable than it once seemed, when dramas of the liberal conscience had an urgent edge. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the part of John Proctor in a gorgeous leather biker's coat that makes him the chicest man in Salem; Winona Ryder performs Abigail Williams, his former lover and the primary accuser, with a due degree of unsympathetic malice; and both are effortlessly upstaged by Paul Scofield, whose rendition of Judge Danforth, Witchfinder General, is far and away the best reason for seeing the film - magisterial and humane, with the slightest hint of mischief.

Had we but world enough and time, Tim Burton's alien-invasion comedy Mars Attacks! (12) would deserve a detailed rave-with-reservations. A giddy mixture of the gross and the trashily poetic, it's hopelessly undisciplined, and will plunder giggles wherever it can find them; at its best, it can make you yelp with laughter. Burton's basic conceit is as simple as it is perverse. He's used the most advanced forms of computer technology to create an exquisite revision of the rinky-dink imagery dear to the hearts of 1950s sci-fi directors. The Martians are wicked, skeletal prankster puppets with bug eyes and external brains, who travel in sweet little flying saucers, fire tinny ray-guns that burn their targets down to the skeleton, and can't stand country and western music. Were Independence Day not already a conscious self-parody, Mars Attacks! would look like a cruel, scene-by-scene spoof of that knowing blockbuster; as it is, the film seems to have been lifted from the reveries of a very inventive, very troubled nine-year-old, and boasts some delicious comic acting from the likes of Pierce Brosnan (complacent pinko scientist), Tom Jones (a Welsh singer called Tom Jones) and Jack Nicholson, quite sublime as the unprincipled head of the Free World.

The Wachowski brothers' Bound (18) is a brutal, flashily directed and pretty much meretricious attempt at reworking the old film noir routine about the regular Joe who is tempted into a murderous compact by a slinky dame (Jennifer Tilly) - except that here the regular Joe is a regular Jane (Gina Gershon), and the first couple of reels are charged with adequately steamy lesbian sex. Confined mostly to a couple of rooms, the plot involves an attempt to snaffle $2m away from the fatal lady's Mafia husband (Joe Pantoliano). What follows is unedifying, though it might increase your vocabulary: were you aware that a labrys is a type of two-bladed hatchet, apparently used as a symbol of sapphic pride?

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

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