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Isabel Archer, an American heiress and free thinker travels to Europe to find herself. She tactfully rebuffs the advances of Caspar Goodwood, another American who has followed her to England. Her cousin, Ralph Touchett, wise but sickly becomes a soulmate of sorts for her. She makes an unfortunate alliance with the creepy Madame Merle who leads her to make an even more unfortunate alliance with Gilbert Osmond, a smooth but cold collector of Objets' de art who seduces her with an intense but unattainable sexuality. Isabel marries Osmond only to realize she's just another piece of art for his collection and that Madame Merle and Osmond are lovers who had hatched a diabolical scheme to take Isabel's fortune. Isabel's only comfort is the innocent daughter of Osmond, Pansy, but even that friendship is spoiled when Countess Gemini, Osmond's sister, reveals the child's true parentage. Isabel finally breaks free of Osmond and returns to Ralph's bedside, where, while breathing his last, they ... Written by
Teresa B. <O'Donnell@worldnet.att.net>
Given the tenor of some of the other reviews posted here, I should start by making the extent of my disagreements clear.
First, this film is unquestionably Jane Campion's best work to date, and it represents, in particular, a significant advance beyond her previous work in The Piano.
Second, this film, while unapologetically feminist in point of view, in no sense attempts to shoehorn James's artistic vision into an ideological box for which it is unsuited. On the contrary, James has probably never been more sensitively interpreted on screen.
Third, purely as a film, The Portrait of a Lady belongs on a short shelf among the very best movies of the 1990's, of whatever genre.
Consider what Campion was up against: A literary adaptation, in the first place (itself almost a recipe for cinematic failure); a Henry James novel, in particular (a novelist who situated most of the "action" in his novels in the invisible social and psychological spaces between his characters, and whose works therefore constitute a kind of standing temptation to focus on picturesque/prestigious historical ambiance at the expense of narrative power); and a story, as James himself pointed out, centered on the seemingly quite confined topic of one very ordinary young woman's working out of her particular destiny.
Out of these distinctly unpromising materials, Ms. Campion created a film in which nearly every scene adds depth and color to her story, even after repeated viewings. And her Isabelle Archer (beautifully realized by Nicole Kidman, in possibly her finest performance to date) is as fully tested and tried by life's moral and epistemological ambiguities, and as fully responsive to life's promise, on film, as Henry James's heroine is, on the printed page. One could hardly ask for more.
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