The Portrait of a Lady

When Henry James created Isabel Archer, one of his American innocents abroad, he had plenty of good reason to feel, as he recalled in his preface to a later edition of the novel, that he was venturing into virgin territory (well ahead of Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, et al.) in centering the subject of a massive novel in the consciousness of an ordinarily intelligent, ordinarily inquisitive, ordinarily brave, ordinarily brash young woman -- a "frail vessel," in a phrase borrowed from George Eliot. He was doing her the honor of supposing that the destiny of such a person could be made to "matter." And filmmaker Jane Campion, in turn, has done James the honor of finding nothing timid or primitive or imperialistic about his trailblazing. Just as there is nothing condescending in her approach to James, neither is there any of the coattail-riding so common in screen adaptations of literary classics. This is the rare case of one artist communing with another, on the same subject matter, and collaborating as equals on a wholly new work from a new perspective. A modern, a feminist perspective. If Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady may be seen as a pioneer in the portrayal of women in fiction, then Isabel Archer herself becomes a kind of pioneer. And Campion has come back to them, a time traveller from a century away, not to radiate a superior air of advancement and enlightenment, not to gloat about having come a long way, baby, but rather to pay a debt of gratitude, to firm up the bond between the generations, to renew the resolve to soldier on. And what, in the context of a feminist testimonial, could be more meaningful or more moving than that? With Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Donovan. 1996.

5.0 stars

— Duncan Shepherd

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Comments

CuddleFish July 11, 2010 @ 7:22 p.m.

Okay. Well, what interested me was that this is the second movie where John Malkovich slaps his women around, when the book makes no mention of physical violence, "Portrait of a Woman, and "Dangerous Liaisons."

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