The Portrait Of A Lady

From the December 3, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J,.R.

The progression from Sweetie to An Angel at My Table to The Piano to this unsatisfying mess (1996) shows that the more money director Jane Campion has to spend, the more of her formidable talent she wastes. This time she all but drowns in a sea of production values and Monarch Notes. Almost everyone in the cast is good (except John Malkovich, who gives a tiresomely generic performance), and Martin Donovan as the heroine’s doomed cousin is especially affecting. But they’re all treading water, and neither the script (by An Angel at My Table‘s Laura Jones) nor the direction supplies them with any reason for being. It’s highly doubtful whether Henry James’s 1881 novel is filmable to begin with, as the book depends on a style of observation and nuance that proceeds with the methodical patience of a bricklayer. Campion has none of this patience and little discernible design or vision to replace it with, and she seriously mauls the novel. A coy New Age prologue, an early dream sequence, and a surrealist black-and-white interlude are at best provocative teasers for an alternative to James that never takes shape, and the dull use of a wide-screen format only increases the sluggishness. With Nicole Kidman, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, Shelley Winters, Richard E. Grant, Shelley Duvall, Viggo Mortensen, and John Gielgud. (JR)

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