The Portrait of a Lady (Shout! Factory, PG-13)

portraitofalady 75The constant reminder that you’re watching actors act makes it difficult to care for the characters, thus making a lengthy film seem even longer than it is.

My basic standard for films is that, at a bare minimum, they have to repay the time you spend watching them. A film can be a failure on many counts and still meet that standard if it’s really good in one or two aspects, or if it’s interesting enough in its failures to provide some real food for thought. Jane Campion’s 1996 The Portrait of a Lady, now available on blu-ray from Shout! Factory, is a prime example of a film that’s worth watching, even if it’s far from perfect.

You probably remember the basic story from English Lit class: The young American Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) is visiting relatives in England, and hoping to find happiness while remaining independent, a combination really not assumed possible for women in her day (the Henry James novel on which this film is based was first published in serial form in 1880–1881). It’s no spoiler to say that it doesn’t work out for her—it never does in James novels—and a series of bad decisions on Isabel’s part sets up a drawn-out depiction of the price she pays for getting it wrong. Not that I’m unsympathetic to the plight of women in that period, but I was soon longing to be put out of my misery, along with most of the characters in this film.

The main problem is the casting of the two leads. Despite The Portrait of a Lady being largely shot on location in Italy and England, and despite some marvelous period recreations from the technical crew (costume designer Janet Patterson was nominated for an Oscar, and also does herself proud with the production design), the acting styles are all over the place, so you can never really settle into the film. In addition, the constant reminder that you’re watching actors act makes it difficult to care for the characters, thus making a lengthy film (144 minutes) seem even longer than it is.

The most guilt belongs to the two leads, Kidman and John Malkovich (he plays Gilbert Osmond, whom Isabel marries before discovering, quite predictably, that he’s a total cad). Both might as well be wearing signs that say, “Look at me—I’m acting!” Mary-Louise Parker, playing Isabel’s friend and resident bluestocking Henrietta Stackpole, seems to have no idea what kind of a film she’s in. Barbara Hershey, playing the evil Madame Serena Marle (she introduces Isabel and Gilbert), does much better with her role (she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), as does Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett, Isabel’s tubercular cousin who truly loves her and gives her good advice that she proceeds to ignore because, well, it wouldn’t be a tragedy otherwise.

Having said all that, The Portrait of a Lady is worth seeing for the locations, Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography, Wojciech Kilar’s score, and those beautiful costumes and props. It’s also worth seeing for Campion’s visual flights of fantasy, the first of which comes right after the title sequence. Note to self: If you’re going to make an uneven film, be sure to have something really good up front, to raise the hopes of the audience and keep them watching.

The picture and sound on the Shout! Factory blu-ray are both excellent, which is good because they’re the main selling point of this film. Extras on the disc include the trailer and a 55 minute making-of featurette that is better than most of its kind. | Sarah Boslaugh

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