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The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

PG-13 | | Drama, Romance | 17 January 1997 (USA)
An American girl inherits a fortune and falls into a misguided relationship with a gentleman confidence artist whose true nature, including a barbed and covetous disposition, turns her life into a nightmare.



(novel), (screenplay)
Nominated for 2 Oscars. Another 5 wins & 13 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Catherine Zago ...
Mother Superior
Alessandra Vanzi ...
Nun #2


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>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Drama | Romance

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated PG-13 for mature sensuality and some brief nudity | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:







Release Date:

17 January 1997 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Retrato de una dama  »

Box Office

Opening Weekend:

ITL 5,570,319,000 (Italy) (15 November 1996)


$3,684,143 (USA) (21 February 1997)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


Nicole Kidman spent two weeks in bed after filming wrapped, diagnosed as suffering from "emotional stress". See more »


When Isabel is attempting to retrieve her parasol from Mr. Osmond, all camera shots of her show the bow around her neck to her right. However, there is one camera shot that shows the bow to her left. See more »


Gilbert Osmond: I know plenty of dingy people. I don't want to know any more.
See more »

Crazy Credits

In loving memory of J.E.C. See more »


Featured in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) See more »


Six Cavatines Op 39 ('Par che di giubilo')
Composed by Mauro Giuliani
Performed by Maurizia Barazzoni, soprano
Courtesy of Arion Disques S.A., France
By Arrangement with Allegro Corporation
See more »

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User Reviews

The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
16 March 2004 | by (Waynesville, OH) – See all my reviews

Watching Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady is kind of like watching a David Lynch movie: it may not always work, but it never ceases to be interesting. After winning an Oscar for writing The Piano and becoming only the second woman to ever be nominated for the Best Director Academy Award, hopes were high for what Campion had in store for us next, and perhaps some were disappointed by this flawed -- but good, nevertheless -- entry in her resume. But I wasn't (at least, not for the most part). Okay: so maybe this isn't a masterpiece in the vein of The Piano, but since when was everything supposed to be? What's important is that Campion tried something different and made a rather good movie in the process. The Portrait of a Lady marks another screen adaptation for the popular period novelist Henry James, and though it may not be as great an adaptation as, say, The Wings of the Dove, it is certainly one of the most peculiar. Peculiar in how it is treated, that is, not in the subject matter (which boils down to the typical money-hungry snobs searching for romance); rather than taking the Merchant Ivory route, Campion delivers a much looser interpretation of the material, starting with an opening sequence that features a multitude of modern women staring blankly at the screen, one of them dancing to the music of her walkman. While I'm still unsure as to whether or not her liberal vision works, I'm pleased that Campion had the nerve to try it. The Portrait of a Lady tells the story of a young American woman (played, oddly enough, by Aussie actress Nicole Kidman) who inherits a fortune and is seduced by a manipulative artist (John Malkovich) while a mysterious woman (Barbara Hershey) pulls the strings; ultimately, Kidman has to decide the spouse for her stepdaughter, and choose which life she wants to lead herself. The cast of Portrait of a Lady is something to salivate over: aside from the aforementioned stars, Shelley Winters, Christian Bale, Shelley Duvall, and John Gielgud are just a few of the A-list actors that make an appearance (also, keep your eye open for Viggo Mortensen, now famous for playing Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Kidman is appropriately melodramatic, and Malkovich is phenomenal (as always), but the Academy did right in recognizing the most outstanding performance of the picture, Barbara Hershey's (who earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress): she is both cold and wildly emotional, mystical and open, and she does it all with the grace and confidence of a true star. The script features some terrific dialogue, but at two-and-a-half hours, it runs a little long at times; Campion keeps the pace moving with her innovative direction (which features tilted camera angles, a throwback to silent black-and-white films, and a stunning romantic fantasy sequence), but one wonders if she doesn't try a little too hard at times. Yet as with any good period piece, when the story slacks, the costumes and art direction act as a worthy distraction (as they often do here). It is also worth noting the lush original score by Wojciech Kilar, which makes everything seem far more fascinating than it truly is. The Portrait of a Lady never reaches any true emotional or artistic depth, but I wasn't expecting it to: I was simply expecting something that was good to look at with just enough plot to keep me interested throughout, and that's what I got.

Grade: A-

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