Portrait of a Lady [1996]

Leave it to New Zealand director Jane Campion (The Piano, Angel at My Table) to begin an adaptation of Henry James's great novel (set in the late 1800s) with a group of late-20th-century women from Down Under talking about the importance of a kiss. Like any good film adaptation (and it's a very good one, indeed), this exquisitely framed and mounted Portrait of a Lady is at least as much Campion as it is James. The story of strong-willed, independent-minded Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman, whose skin here is photographed like delicate porcelain) is a tricky one to dramatize, since it's largely about good intentions going awry, roads not taken, misguided decisions made for good reasons. Headstrong American orphan Isabel rejects the proposal of a decent, sensible English suitor, Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), because she wants to find her own destiny and identity first. Instead, she is seduced by Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), an effete collector of art (and women) whom one character describes as a "sterile dilettante." How Isabel's life, and the lives of those who love her, are affected by this fateful (but irreversible?) decision is what the bulk of the film is about. Portrait of a Lady is lovely, heartbreaking, and at times terrifying--as only coming face-to-face with the consequences of one's own life-changing decisions can be. Gorgeously photographed in anamorphic widescreen format. --Jim Emerson

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