Aussiewood: The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

Portrait poster

Director: Jane Campion

Stars: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Martin Donovan, Viggo Mortensen, Shelley Winters, Shelley Duvall, Richard E. Grant

Second viewing, via DVD

The Portrait of a Lady opens with voiceover of modern liberated women (with predominantly Antipodean accents) talking about kissing. A montage follows during the film’s opening credits, showing contemporary women of different cultural backgrounds lying in a circle, dancing, staring into camera, and so on. The film then cuts to Nicole Kidman—as the film’s heroine Isabel Archer—in 1870s England, dressed in period garb, frizzy hair severely curtailed, and hiding away following an unwanted marriage proposal. The film’s opening minutes nicely encapsulate Campion’s interest—an interest that pervades her filmography— in women both past and present, their spirits and agency, and attempts to domesticate and discipline them by various, frequently patriarchal entities.

Portrait title

Following our previous looks at Australian directors working overseas (see here and here), The Portrait of a Lady finds Campion—like Sam Neill and Russell Crowe a product of both New Zealand and Australia—adapting Henry James’ door-stopping 1881 serial turned novel to the screen. Kidman’s Isabel Archer is a young woman of independent mind bequeathed a considerable inheritance following the passing of her uncle (John Gielgud). Rejecting various romantic suitors, she seeks to travel Europe. However, her supposed friend, the scheming Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), orchestrates a union between Isabel and the cruel Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), and Isabel becomes trapped in an unhappy marriage, tormented by her psychologically abusive husband.

Campion studied at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the early 1980s, following in the footsteps of former graduate Gillian Armstrong, whose film Mr Brilliant Career was impressionable on the younger director. She recalls how “Seeing Gill Armstrong make My Brilliant Career, it was just like ‘God they’re going to let girls do it too’ … it just opened up that door in my mind that maybe it would be possible for me too” (Jane Campion: Cinema, Nation, Identity, p. 282). That first shot of Kidman in The Portrait of a Lady—period garb, curtailed frizzy hair— intertextually evokes My Brilliant Career’s heroine Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis in her star-making role), but where Sybylla’s rejection of suitor Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) serves as that film’s denouement, here Isabel’s rejection of Lord Warburton’s (Richard E. Grant) proposal is the story’s starting point. Their reasons for rejecting these proposals are the same, yet where My Brilliant Career ends on a note of promise and self-possession, Campion’s film chronicles the erosion of its protagonist’s agency and self-possession over the course of the story.

Gender politics, the politics of relationships, and how women negotiate their identities within relationships are recurring motifs in Campion’s work (Bright Star, her film about the romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, is anomalous in its positive presentation of a healthy, but still ultimately tragic, onscreen romance). The Portrait of a Lady is potentially Campion’s bleakest meditation on these themes. Its critical reception was chilly in the aftermath of The Piano, and it’s easy to see why: it lacks the former film’s novel setting and hooks; it’s heavily dialogue-driven (which The Piano wasn’t by virtue of its central conceit), though not without moments of expressionism; and it’s an unsentimental, resolutely no-swoon zone, turning a cold shoulder to The Piano’s complicated romanticism and eroticism. Yet even at its most baroque and remote, there’s much to admire about The Portrait of a Lady’s infusion of Gothic romance with feminist lament, and there’s a tactility to the film not typically seen in heritage cinema, nor in those other noteworthy adaptations of Henry James by producer-director team Ishmael Merchant and James Ivory (i.e. The Bostonians, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl).

The film’s cast list reads like the Tombstone of heritage cinema, peppered with veteran performers (Gielgud, Shelley Duvall, Shelley Winters) and newer talents and stars on the ascent (Grant, Mary Louise Parker, Christian Bale, Viggo Mortensen). Malkovich brings some of his Dangerous Liaisons baggage to the part, and while his character is somewhat more one-dimensional here he excels in exuding Osmond’s nonchalant cruelty. Hershey, who’d do further noteworthy work with Australian directors in subsequent years (see Passion, Lantana, Insidious), similarly excels as the inscrutable and damned Madame Merle and was Oscar-nominated for her efforts. Also doing great work is the great Martin Donovan—best known for his caustic everyman roles in Hal Hartley films like Trust and Amateur—as Isabel’s ailing cousin, sympathetic ear, and unrequited romantic prospect. Front and centre (see the poster above) is Kidman, perennially underrated and skilfully essaying the curdling of Isabel’s ambitions and spirit. Alas, the film was released between Batman Forever and The Peacemaker, which is like being released between a hate crime and cardboard, and it would be a few years before Kidman started earning the props she deserved.

The Portrait of a Lady likewise deserves some props. The film and its director’s post-Piano bad rap continued with her next project, Holy Smoke, leading to numerous articles (frequently by male critics) lamenting or lampooning her fall, such as ‘Losing the Way: The Decline of Jane Campion’ by Adrian Martin and ‘Holey Smoking Reputation’ by Phillip Adams. But Campion has proven her longevity and vitality, and her cold and coolly received The Portrait of a Lady warrants a similar reassessment.

Next week: Nadia Tass’s The Big Steal (1990) and Mr Reliable (1996)

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

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