Campion effectively illustrates that choosing Osmond is the literalized subtext of the underlying farce of a woman’s choice in this time period and society.
Jane Campion opens her adaptation of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady in almost avant-garde fashion, with audio of contemporary women being interviewed on the subject of romance, describing things like whether they believe in fated coupling and what a first kiss is like. Then come black-and-white images of women in hippie clothes arranged around idyllic pastures and trees in a manner not unlike the early scenes of Picnic at Hanging Rock. As the frame colorizes, time works backward from these women to the face of Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), an American woman in 1872 England who rests in a similar glade. The initial image of her poise falters when the camera zooms in on Isabel’s face to reveal tears forming in her eyes.
Isabel’s emotional display is mysterious, even when her situation is clarified as suffering the proposal of an unwanted suitor. The man (Richard E. Grant) is not disrespectful, and he offers his incredible fortune as added incentive for marriage, but it is clear from the outset that Isabel has fielded more than one proposal like this. To her paramour and to her family, Isabel expresses reluctance to marry, choosing instead to explore her youth. Much of the film’s first act concerns her rejecting various suitors while enjoying her extended travel across the continent.
This would mark a relatively straightforward adaptation of James’ text, but Campion begins to upend the material with her jagged, sexually-charged filmmaking. The camera tends to move in stalking gestures, spying on Isabel from afar as she peruses museums or walks in gardens. Occasionally, it reflects the protagonist’s own hungry gaze, as in a dream sequence in which she is groped by several suitors, betraying an even more shockingly modern psyche than was displayed in the original novel. Far from leaning into the repression of sexuality of period drama, Campion counters it, presenting unvarnished desire hiding just beneath the surface. Such revisions possibly clarify Isabel’s objections to the men who woo her as owing not to disinterest in their personalities but a sense that their propriety would never satisfy her.
Isabel’s unpredictability catches the attention of Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), an imperious spinster who regards this independent woman as some kind of existential rival. Merle resolves to corrupt Isabel, and she turns to her lover Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) to do so. Malkovich oozes misanthropic malice as Osmond, an American ensconced in the Old World beauty of Florence, which he treats as so much decorative superfluity to reinforce his social image. His efforts at seducing Isabel do not even play at kindness or respect; instead, he says that he loves her as if promising to commit a crime, and he ignores her resistance to place his hands on her. Something about this violation attracts, not repulses, Isabel, and the two eventually marry.
These are dicey sexual politics, of course, and Campion does not shy away from their dark insinuations in attempting to answer why James would have someone as headstrong as Isabel end up with the man who respects her the least. She comes up with abstract visual methods to depict the strange pull that Osmond has on the woman, most notably an interlude that apes silent films and early talkies as Isabel travels the world but is visited by expressionistic reveries of dwelling on Osmond’s possessiveness. Faced with the usual platitudes of love and devotion from others, Isabel ultimately finds herself drawn to the man who promises the opposite, to use and ignore her, at least honest about his attentions to wield her as another bauble for his collection.
Campion, harking back to analytical scrutiny of gender socialization in her early shorts and Sweetie, effectively illustrates that choosing Osmond is the literalized subtext of the underlying farce of a woman’s choice in this time period and society. Isabel’s other suitors may have expressed real affections and respect for her, but their bland cries of devotion mask an eventual level of control they would have over her, a level that Osmond exercises from their first meeting. Instead of taming James’s contradictory, dated psychological insights, Campion expands on them, takes them to their bleakest extremes to better understand them. In a sense, The Portrait of a Lady is a work of literary criticism, a close read of a challenging text that provides an equally complex response.
Yet if the film rarely dwells on the tear-stained melodrama at the surface of the story, it does nonetheless make time for certain emotional subplots. Isabel’s closest friend, Ralph (Martin Donovan), offers a vision of a truly sweet, caring, yet honest male companion who would be one of Isabel’s suitors if not for suffering a terminal disease that he decides would make romantic interest dishonest. Ironically, by being sealed off from the prospect of marriage, he exhibits such true devotion as to break the cycle of possessive men and provide a glimpse of an ideal partner. More importantly, though, are the relationships between women that Campion explores. We see how Merle manipulates Isabel into marrying Osmond, though a later revelation about the woman’s own backstory complicates her villainy. Elsewhere, Isabel’s decision to stay with Osmond is filtered through her tender interactions with Osmond’s daughter, Pansy (Valentina Cervi), whom her stepmother recognizes as a far more trapped prisoner of Osmond’s sexist monstrosity. The ways that one woman’s action toward another can reshape that person’s entire life for better and worse offers an alternative, if an ambivalent and unpredictable one, to the social prison of marriage, and the exploration of these relationships makes an already difficult, observant film that much harder to parse.