Monday, October 8, 2012

Like Watching Paint on Said Portrait Dry: "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996)

Based on a hopefully better reading novel by Henry James, Jane Campion and screenwriter Laura Jones bring a cold and boring adaptation to the screen, helped some by three performances you would never have expected.

American Isabel (Nicole Kidman) is visiting her aunt and uncle (Shelley Winters and John Gielgud) in England. She has just turned down a marriage proposal from the earnest Warburton (Richard E. Grant), and decides to dally in London with her sick cousin Ralph (Martin Donovan) and her "bohemian" friend Henrietta (Mary-Louise Parker). Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), another admirer, follows her but she rejects him as well. Isabel does, however, have a sexual fantasy where she is made love to by Ralph, Warburton, and Goodwood at the same time, so her heart may feel otherwise.

Isabel meets the mysterious Serena (Barbara Hershey), and the two become friends. Isabel's uncle dies, and leaves her a mammoth amount of cash. Serena goes to visit Osmond (John Malkovich), a former lover, and they hatch a plan to make the destitute Osmond marry Isabel for her money and the comfort of Osmond's daughter Pansy (Valentina Cervi). Isabel was a free spirit, Osmond a little weird, so all of Isabel's friends and potential suitors try to warn her off.

Soon, Pansy comes into womanhood, and she and Rosier (Christian Bale) fall in love. While Rosier has money, he does not have enough for Osmond, who would like to see Pansy marry the more wealthy Warburton. Isabel is less than enthusiastic, and she and Osmond come to odds (and blows) when Warburton decides against pursuing Pansy.

As Ralph (finally) comes closer to death, Isabel must decide to leave Osmond and go to her sick cousin and possible true love. Assorted plot revelations occur, and the viewer snorts awake at the final freeze frame of an indecisive Isabel on the wintry steps of her aunt's home.

There are just some films that rub you the wrong way, and this is one. Campion tries everything to keep the viewer interested, but the story is so slowly paced and boring, I felt bad for all involved. The film was not a total loss. Viggo Mortensen, Martin Donovan, and Richard E. Grant turn in some of the best work of their careers. Donovan is the biggest revelation, looking completely at home in this blue costume drama.

Kidman spends most of the film crying, Malkovich plays Osmond like a serial killer, and Hershey is so restrained that her final outpouring of emotion in a scene with Malkovich and then later with Kidman seem out of place and out of character.

There is no passion shown for "The Portrait of a Lady," neither as a film or a piece of literature. This seems like an exercise in how to dress up period drama for today's audience, yet someone forgot to get it right. Call this "Portrait of a Bored Reviewer," that seems more on the mark. (* *) out of five stars.