The James’ novel narrates the story of an American girl, Isabel Archer, living in Europe and inherits a great deal of money after her English uncle dies. She refusals proposal of marriage from Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood, and instead she is attracted to Gilbert Osmund, an American artist, fascinating man and a excellent conversationalist, who understands the situation and decides to exploit it to is own advantage. He, with aid of Madame Merle, marries Isabel for her fortune and in doing ruins her life. Isabel, trapped by the conventions of her class, remains loyal to him even when the realises that her chance of happiness lies with Caspar, who is still in love with her.
Compared to the traditional Victorian novel, the windows James choose to observe from are highly innovative. For James, external events are a little importance; his writings, and “The portrait a Lady”, particularly, is a classic example of this, begins with the study of the psychological development of a character. This focus on the characters’ interior world was later to be fully developed by modernist writers, like Joyce and Woolf, particularly in their technique of “interior monologue”.
Thus in the film the portrait of Isabel we are offered often merge with her reverie and erotic fantasy. Unfortunately, these eccentricities, a typical feature of Campion’s earlier films, remain largely at the margin of the story, like special effects designed to amaze or shock rather than provoke a more profound reflection into Isabel’s state of mind. None the less Kidman’s brilliant performance to create a decidedly new sensibility in the character of Isabel, around whom various suitors resolve like shadowy phantoms.
However, the main body of the film, involving Isabel’s seduction by the unscrupulous and indigent aesthete Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) in which he is supported by the vain aristocrat Madame Merle, an ageing beauty played to perfection by Barbara Hershey, is too similar to Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaison” thanks to Markovitch’s mannered performance. Still, there is much to be enjoyed in Kidman’s Isabel, perfectly balanced between innocence and experience, and in Martin Donovan’s excellent supporting performance as Ralph Touchett.
This cinematic adaptation of Henry James’s “The portrait a Lady” stays very close to the actual text, which is in places highly theatrical and therefore remarkably easy to transfer into cinema. But in the film, apart from the dialogue, there are a whole series of other elements which add to the written text.