Australian director Jane Campion had been making short films for several years before feature-length debut in 1989 with Sweetie. It was 1993’s The Piano that shot her into the forefront. The Piano was a darling during awards season with Campion scoring an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Campion decided to follow that up with yet another period piece about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, albeit an even more ambitious one.
The Portrait of a Lady was based on a dense 1881 novel by Henry James and adapted for the screen by Laura Jones, who went on to write Oscar and Lucinda and Angela’s Ashes. For her leading lady, Campion chose fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman, who was fresh off her critically acclaimed turn in To Die For. The parts couldn’t be more different. In To Die For, Kidman played a ruthless newswoman who schemed to murder her husband. As Isabel Archer in Portrait, Kidman is the target of the schemes.
Isabel Archer is an orphaned American living with wealthy relatives in London. While her Aunt (Shelley Winters) wishes for Isabel to marry, she is steadfast in her belief that any marriage would stifle her independence. Isabel certainly isn’t lacking for suitors, such as Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant) and Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), both of whom are rich and come from well-respected families. Even Isabel’s cousin, Ralph (Martin Donovan), seems to have amorous affection for Isabel though she doesn’t return the sentiment.
While visiting her sick Uncle (Sir John Gielgud), Isabel meets a kindred spirit in Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey). Much like Isabel, the Madame is intelligent, opinionated, and fiercely independent. Their budding friendship is cut short when Isabel inherits a considerable sum in her uncle’s will. Seething with jealousy that Isabel will live the life she never could; the Madame charges Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), an egotistical artist, with seducing Isabel. Girls just love the bad boys, even in the late-1800’s, as Isabel falls prey to Osmond’s charms and becomes trapped in the suffocating marriage she always feared. Her troubles may be a drop in the bucket compared to Osmond’s daughter, Pansy (Valentina Cervi), who is likewise constricted by her father’s overbearing dominance.
The Portrait of a Lady met with a lukewarm response from both the critics and box office when it was released in 1996. Perhaps, the bar was set too high following The Piano. It’s certainly not for lack of trying. The costumes and sets are extremely well done and photographed gracefully by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. Campion injects some of her own flourishes in an attempt to make this period piece unique. For example, a montage of Isabel’s travels is done in the style of a black and white silent film. Unfortunately, at over two and a half hours long, Portrait is a chore to get through with stuffy scenes and soap opera-like dialogue.
There are strong performances from Nicole Kidman and Barbara Hershey, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. John Malkovich also gives a deliciously slimy performance in a repeat of his role in Dangerous Liaisons. In addition, the rich supporting cast includes Shelley Duvall, Mary-Louise Parker, a young Christian Bale, and a cameo by Pat Roach, best remembered as the burly German mechanic who brawled with Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Polygram initially released Portrait of a Lady in 1997 on a now out of print DVD. Universal later offered it as part of their manufacture-on-demand program. Shout Factory now offers a special edition on DVD and Blu-ray. I can’t compare how those previous versions stack up, but the transfer for Shout’s DVD is superb. Though the colors are slightly faded, there’s nary a scratch or speck to be found with a layer of grain adding a nice texture to it all.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 stereo. The score by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar and the dialogue come in crisp and clear.
Portrait: Jane Campion and the Portrait of a Lady (54:57) is a lengthy behind-the-scenes documentary. It’s a bit dry, but it does give us a look at the process of the actors and the director as they prepare for their scenes.
Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer.