The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

PG-13  |   |  Drama, Romance  |  17 January 1997 (USA)
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Ratings: 6.3/10 from 8,571 users   Metascore: 61/100
Reviews: 67 user | 58 critic | 17 from

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)
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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'>

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)


£575,908 (UK) (14 March 1997)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


Daniel Day-Lewis was offered the role of Ralph, but turned it down. 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 »


Isabel Archer: Why should there be pain then? That's not the deepest thing.
Ralph Touchett: Pain's deep... but it passes, after all. It's passing now but love remains.
See more »

Crazy Credits

Jane Campion thanks her family, Colin, Alice and Richard, for their generous support, suggestions and encouragement during the making of this film. See more »


Referenced in Kidman on Kubrick (1999) See more »


Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041
Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach
Courtesy of Audio Action
See more »

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User Reviews

Refined, elegant, exquisite, sublime: a poetic rhapsody
19 September 2001 | by (La Rioja, Spain) – See all my reviews

Just three years after `The Piano', itself a well thought out and carefully prepared film, Jane Campion comes up with an adaptation of a Henry James novel that deserves just about the highest possible accolade. `The Portrait of a Lady' not only showed exquisite care in preparing the scenes of fragments of late 19th Century England and Italy and an accurate eye for the costumes, as well as some first class performances from the actors, but also a refined adaptation of this splendid novel.

Henry James, North American, but lived most of his fruitful life in Great Britain, was himself an elegant literary figure whose writing easily overcame the frequently insipid hypocrasy of many Victorian era writers. He was able to hold an elegant story-line whilst obeying the formulas of the times, whereas many other novelists of the times could not, or changed literary formulas – for example Dickens, and of course later Joseph Conrad (who was not British, anyway). However, his novels would seem to defy easy adaptation to celluloid: Jane Campion and Laura Jones have pulled off one of the greatest feats ever in the cinematographic world. Very few literary delights are lost as the dialogues are scintillating, witty, or just simply elegant. Added to that, our old friend Sir John Gielgud plays his small part with that extreme tenderness which only old age and experience can lend; John Malkovich in this film shows that in many others he has been miscast: under Jane Campion's orders he offers here a tremendous reading and understanding of the characteriology of Gilbert Osmond which James himself would have enjoyed seeing. Simply superb. Which I imagine is exactly what Jane Campion sought. Barbara Hershey was evidently inspired by this perhaps somewhat feminist interpretation of the novel, though by no means can we say that this was not what James intended; she was magnificent in her secondary rôle and well deserved her Oscar (though if you push me I suppose this film should have won all of the Oscars on offer in 1996……….but it is not important, anyway).

And……hm: Nicole Kidman? Forsooth, young man – this creature can actually act; Ms Kidman is not limited to simply being the lovely young lady accompanying the leading actor, whoever he may be, as she has so often been doing in other films: she also needed Jane Campion's inspiration to produce what surely must be her best performance to date.

Wojciech Kilar's music is superb, beautifully synchronised with the film, offering rich orchestral tones, and the pieces of Schubert on the piano were well chosen, in line with everything else in this film. There were certain other fragments of music which I was not able to identify and may have been by Kilar himself. The music offered that final touch that elevated some moments to the heights of a poetic rhapsody. Stuart Drybergh's photography joined these sonorous accompaniments, soaring to supreme and wondrous revelations, visual aspects reaching state of the art perfection. Never have I seen so clearly in a film, to give but one example, the real difference in light on a sunny day in England and a sunny day in Italy………..

The New Zealand directress (sic, sorry) Jane Campion has carried out a masterpiece comparable with `Fanny och Alexander' that great film by the unique Ingmar Bergman. She accomplished with admirable precision and style exactly what Martin Scorsese failed miserably at with his `The Age of Innocence' (1993)(qv). I am expecting great things from Ms Campion: she is not yet 50, and in the world of art 50 years of age is but the threshold to maturity. But with `The Portrait of a Lady' she has already reached such heights of perfection that it is seemingly impossible to go much further. Or can she?

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