Customer Reviews: Portrait Of A Lady (Special Edition)
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on April 7, 2013
I purchased the Henry James novel, Portrait of a Lady, several years ago and what I remember most about the book is that I could not manage to remain interested long enough to move beyond the first few chapters. During his lifetime, Williams James criticized his younger brother's novels for, in so many words, containing too much tedious detail that only stood in the way of the plot. I could not agree more, However, what Director Jane Campion has done with this story is anything but tedious. She begins with rich settings and unusual camera angles then brings the characters to life with a very convincing all-star cast. Nicole Kidman does a fabulous portrayal of Isabel Archer, the independent-minded and impetuous young American heiress who is so intent on remaining single - if only to avoid marriage to a 'proper man of means' because it is what's 'expected' of her - that she finds herself running from the one man who, out of genuine love and concern, pursues her across an ocean while she allows herself to be swept away by the cold and cunning Gilbert Osmond, most excellently portrayed by John Malkovich. Be sure to watch the bonus feature, 'The making of Portrait of a Lady.'
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on July 24, 2012
This movie has haunted me since I first saw it in its theatrical release. I hadn't read the book when I saw the movie but corrected that after viewing. The movie is mysterious at the end and I hoped to gain some insight in reading the book. I did. The movie is very true to James' novel which ends ambiguously. The movie slowly unfolds and for some there won't be enough action but if you like period pieces that are very literary and allow one to think during scenes you will like Campion's direction of this story.
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on May 9, 2003
This adaptation of Henry James' technically innovative but infamously dense novel is interesting primarily because director Jane Campion seems to have entirely missed the point. She's mistaken Isabel Archer for a "romance addict" rather than the naive idealist James created. Perhaps aiming for wider appeal, she tries to turn this from the portrait of a unique female personality into a more general exploration of "women in love". Such universalizing might have worked if she and screenwriter Laura Jones had also had the wherewithal to change the story to suit their modified heroine. But having ditched the most critical aspect of the novel, they then remain reasonably faithful to its flow of events, with Isabel choosing an ugly, "sterile dilettante" (Malkovich) over a handsome lover and a rich English lord (Mortensen and Grant respectively) both of whom are infatuated with her. For Isabel the "naive idealist", such a choice is perfectly understandable. For Isabel the "romance addict", and women in general, such a choice beggars belief. So this not only fails as an adaptation, it fails as a convincing narrative in its own right. Screenwriting devotees might be drawn to it wondering just how Jones will convey Isabel's famous interiority without resorting to voiceover. The answer is simple: she ignores it in the writing (with the exception of one inspired fantasy sequence) and leaves most of it to performance. The result is that Kidman spends more than half the film in incomprehensible tears. The novel's Isabel cries once in 600 pages. For all that, this film is still not without reward: the performances from the near-ensemble cast are universally marvellous, the settings and costumes exquisite, and the music and cinematography are a perfect match for it all. There's no doubting Campion's skill as a director; I just doubt her interpretation of the source material.
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on July 3, 2004
Nicole Kidman IS Isabel Archer! I don't understand why some reviewers here panned her acting as bad. She has never looked more beautiful than in this film. Her acting is also superb and expressive.
This is the story about a young American woman (Isabel) who is just orphaned and is invited to stay with her rich relatives, the Touchetts in Victorian England. While in England, she is wooed by the rich Lord Warburton but she rejects his proposal because she wants to see the world and be free. When her uncle later dies, Isabel inherits a big sum of money and becomes truly rich and "independent". It is actually her cousin, the consumptive Ralph Touchett (who is secretly in love with her) who pressed his father to leave the money to Isabel without Isabel's knowledge. By this time, Isabel has met the scheming and mysterious Madame Merle (who plays Schubert on the piano most beautifully, I must add). M. Merle introduces Isabel to "her friend", Gilbert Osmond, a poor and widowed American staying in Italy who has a young daughter, Pansy. Both M. Merle and Osmond scheme to make Isabel marry Osmond so that he could have her money. Isabel innocently falls into their trap. Despite advice and dissuasions from her relatives, she eagerly marries Osmond and her life after that becomes a true nightmare. There is also a sub-plot involving Pansy's impossible love affair with Ned Rossum (played by Christian Bale).
The accompanying booklet of the DVD provides valuable information on the making of the film and the cast profile e.g. the fact that Jane Campion finds this to be her hardest project. From the movie, it is easy to see that she had put in tremendous effort to bring Henry James' classic to life. Every shot, every scene and every movement of the characters is carefully and beautifully directed and filmed. The colors are so rich, the seem to jump out of the screen! And oh, the gorgeous costumes - especially Isabel Archer's!
The casting is also perfect - notably, Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich who plays the villain, Osmond. Martin Donovan also embraces the difficult role of "Ralph Touchett" perfectly. My favourite scene is the one nearing the end involving a sobbing, heart-broken Isabel by the bedside of the dying Ralph. It is here that she realizes she loves him. This scene is so tender to watch. To me, this film showcases Nicole Kidman's best performance and it is THIS particular scene that clinches it.
I got my copy of the DVD from If you love period dramas, this is a worthy title to have in your collection. Get the original soundtrack too - the music is absolutely gorgeous and dreamy, and is a fond favourite of mine.
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on November 13, 2004
At about two and a half hours, Jane Campion tinkers at the bare threshold of monotony with this gorgeous period-piece, but she seldom falters in her ability to make her leading roles (The Piano, Sweetie) hypnotically compelling for all of their mulishness and tenacity.

Much has already been said about Malkovich and Kidman, both of whom I find were good if not superb, and Barbara Hershey, who brings just the right flavour of deviousness to her character. So I will focus instead on some common criticisms of this film.

Reviewers lament Campion's psychological simplifications of the theme, or her ungenerous treatment of Isabel as a sufferer of false consciousness who walks blindly into her own trap. On the contrary, I think the director is both adventurous and above-board in stating her revisionist projects from the very opening frame.

Henry James lived in the 1880s. His original work was intended as an exploration of what a woman might do if she were given independent means, and his story indicted women as being trapped by a weaker nature.

Exploring the same material Campion comes to a different, more ambiguous, but IMHO, also more interesting conclusion. She prefers to establish the film largely as Isabel's subjective experience, not as the story told by some omniscient narrator on whose shoulders falls the onus of proof. This is evidenced, for instance, by a sequence at the beginning where Isabel imagines making love with three different men at the same time.

For all its occasional flaws the film is at least internally consistent and proves to me yet again that Campion possesses cinematic imagination in spades. From her comes some of the boldest use of lighting and Black & White interludes I have seen in modern cinema.

Net net, don't let the negative reviews put you off, this is a very heart-warming experience even if a languorous one. Recommended rental for sure.
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on December 27, 2003
Henry James was realistic about women at the end of the 19th century, particularly those standing between the US and Great Britain. Isabel is such a woman. She gets into the world without any parents but with a tremendously good uncle and cousin. She is surrounded with men who love her and want to marry her out of love. She refuses them, three of them, to be able to see the world. And she falls in the hands of a social climber, a social parasite and a fortune hunter who covers up his liaison with the woman who introduced her to him, and whose daughter is the out-of-wedlock child of this very woman. She is of course deeply unhappy, alone, brutalized too, and yet she tries to save the daughter from her fate. She fails because the daughter is totally under the tyrannical authority of her father, an authority that is tyrannical only because the daughter accepts it and submits to it, particularly because of the teachings of some good Catholic nuns. Finally Isabel finds the energy to escape - for a while at least - from that husband when she learns his liaison and she can force him to accept. But she is so pent up in her stubborn decision that she can never step back and consider a real escape. Yet, maybe, at the end, there is a wavering touch of hope - for her. It is incredible how this woman, who wants to be strong-headed and independent, fails to see the men who love her and to recognize the man who uses her. As it is said in the film somewhere, Americans cannot become Europeans, and yet Isabel succeeds very well in becoming twisted and thwarted in Europe. Is that typically European ? Maybe. Nicole Kidman plays the role with style, delicacy, dainty and quaint nuances, but also with a tremendous amount of gusto, sentiment, feeling and emotion. She is probably ten times better than she had ever been, now she can measure herself with actors that are not stereotyped. Her freedom is probably the key to her present depth. Is the film a metaphor of her life ? Maybe. But who cares. What is important is that this Nicole Kidman is able to bring us such a marvellous masterpiece, though some of the « special effects » (strange camera angles and mirror effects) could have been avoided to reach a more intense purity.
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on June 21, 1999
This movie was completely slagged off by US audiences, which just further illustrates the disaster that is American cinema. The Portrait of A Lady is brilliant film-making. It is a movie full of complex characters, divided emotions and intense drama. Most American's just don't get it. Campion's decision to begin the film in modern day with a series of women talking about love proves that not much has changed since Henry James wrote the classic novel on which the film is based. The film follows closely to James' story: Isabel Archer (Kidman in her finest role) comes to England to visit relatives and winds up inheriting a fortune. She falls under the spell of Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey deserved an Oscar)who introduces her to the sinister Gilbert Osmand (Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons mode)who simply wants her money and another beauty to add to his art collection. Isabel rejects a number of suitors in her quest to be an independent woman. She claims to her smitten cousin that she will never marry, but falls under the spell of Osmond. There are scenes of horror and heartbreak here, imaginative moments such as Isabel's "travelogue" through Europe as she begins to obsess over Osmond's entreaty that "I find myself absolutely in love with you." The supporting cast lead by Martin Donovan, Christian Bale, Shelly Winters, Shelly Duval and the priceless Mary-Louise Parker are superb. The much discussed final scene (which for some reason people don't understand) is a fabulous coda to this film. It mirrors an earlier scene when Isabel refused the proposal of Lord Warburton, and now finds herself in the same situation with her American suitor. Isabel runs toward the house, but rather than going inside, she turns back and the image freezes. Isabel is reconsidering the proposal of a man who truly loves her. What people don't like, obviously, is that we don't see her run back to his arms and tearfully say yes as the screen fades to black. We see Isabel caught in a moment of change and decision. This haunting final image is superb. Get a clue, people.
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on December 10, 2000
In Jane Campion's version of Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady", many important elements of the novel are intact: the heroine's search for a life outside of society's strictures, the machinations of the 'villains' in the piece, the ambiguity of certain situations. However, from the start of the film, I found myself wondering what was going on: the mixture of color, b/w, 'old time' film styles was confusing and unnecessary to what is a period film with a strong enough narrative and point of view. Even the opening credits made no sense with the rest of the film, and were not tied to anything else. Nicole Kidman, Barbara Hershey, and John Malkovich are good, but other characters, such as Mary Louise Parker's Henrietta, make no sense if you haven't read the book. Some of the sequences felt edited to the extent of loss of continuity, and the transformation of Kidman's character into someone looking like Hershey's isn't mentioned, and no one seems to care that Kidman's hair miraculously changes color and texture the minute she is in England. Disconcerting. At least Campion took the abrupt and ambiguous ending seriously, although if you haven't read the book, it seems as if the film just ran out of ideas, not to mention steam. Points for the costumes and locations.
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on May 13, 2002
i first read henry james' great novel when i was a teenager. i remember being fascinated by the astounding complexity of his characters -- how every one of them seemed to mask his or her own hidden agendas beneath layers and layers of "proper" social veneers.
the Isabel Archer in the beginning of the novel was an outsider, fresh from america, who single-handedly breathed a new life into the stale surroundings of these rigid european social constructs. she was an ephemeral presence, a beam of light around whom both men and women hovered and wished to take something from. the main dilemma that the novel posed was how this young, somewhat naive outsider could hold true to her dreams of bettering herself within a sophisticated european community without compromising her free-spirited nature and selling herself short. simply put, the novel was about a woman who was in a constant state of flux -- involved in a precarious juggling act involving her own aspirations and those of the people who claimed to love her.
with her "controversial" ending to the film version, i believe that jane campion has brilliantly dramatized this state of flux, for in this scene, we see our heroine, once again, fleeing from her options (which are presented to her throughout the film in the form of aggressive male suitors and their various promises) rather than confronting them; but this time, as she rushes away from Caspar Goodwood's embrace in the icy yard and toward the warmth and security of Gardencourt, we see her suddenly stop at the threshold of the home and turn her gaze back toward the yard, back toward Caspar Goodwood. and the frame freezes and fades to black.
critics of this scene are disappointed that campion chooses not to reveal, as James does in the novel, that Isabel leaves for Rome the very next day, thereby implying that she has decided to go back to Osmond and reject Goodwood yet again. however, i believe that drawing this sort of implication would be a far too literal and surface-level reading of the text. in the novel, Henrietta is the one who reveals to Goodwood that Isabel has left for Rome. Goodwood is stunned and is turning away when Henrietta grabs him and tells him to wait a moment. and then the novel ends. James seems to suggest that Henrietta will reveal to Goodwood -- who, like the readers at this point, is shocked at the thought that Isabel may actually go back to Osmond -- the true nature of Isabel's intentions. for me, the implication of all of this is that Isabel will return to Rome because it is her duty to confront Osmond, if only to tell him that she is leaving him. indeed, james devotes some time earlier in the final chapter to expounding about Isabel's inner dilemma over remaining true to her obligations.
of course, this is only my reading of the text, but i believe that this reading helps elucidate campion's decision to end the film the way she does. for although, in the film, Isabel does turn at the threshold of the house to look back towards Goodwood, you will notice that her hand is still firmly on the door handle. she MUST open the door and enter the house and leave for Rome the next day because campion would not stray so far from the text as to betray the facts of the novel (which happens to be a work of literature that she reveres). by ending the film on this moment, campion is at once able to stay true to the facts of the text while dramatizing, in essence, what the whole film has been about: the precarious nature of an independent-natured woman's destiny in a world that aggressively forces her to choose between various life "options" that are really nothing more than thinly veiled, socially accepted constructs. just as the ending of the film is uncertain and ambiguous, campion suggests that so too was the future of a woman who dared to stray from the social conventions of that time.
as an astonishing counterpoint to the women of Isabel's time, campion opens the film with an inspired segment in which we see a diverse range of young women looking attentively into the camera; some are sitting gracefully, others are dancing, some are dark skinned, others light, some have short hair, others long, and all are either smiling or looking content. earlier, we hear them discussing the impact of a kiss and the dreamy, romanticized attentions of a lover. campion suggests that these women are, in essence, the descendants and beneficiaries of Isabel Archer's earlier struggles to maintain her own identity within a socio-cultural paradigm that wished only to devour it. for these contemporary women, the nature of love and romance is a topic that is to be discussed in leisure and with fondness, not a crushing matter that could determine the course of their lives. THAT, campion suggests, is Isabel Archer's gift to them.
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on November 14, 2014
I forgot about this opulent jewel of a movie. I also forgot what a fine actress Nicole Kidman can be.
John Malkovich is of course an indispensable asset to any film of this calibre.

this is a finely crafted period piece endowed with unassailable integrity and finesse.

The chemistry between the characters creates a potion that evokes a spectrum of human emotion that is both refined and visceral at the same time. The interaction and dialogue are powerful and subtle, at times unnerving with a restraint that threatens to unravel and unleash the ugliness of unbridled emotion.
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