The Portrait of a Lady (review)

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Great (and Little) Expectations

The Portrait of a Lady (starring Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, and Barbara Hershey) is everything costume dramas always threaten to be: boring, unsuspenseful, and too long.

Directed by Jane Campion (she of The Piano fame) from the Henry James novel, Portrait follows the — well, misadventures is too strong a term — the missteps of Isabel Archer (Kidman), an American in Europe in the 1870s. In England, she turns down a proposal of marriage from Lord Warburton — a perfectly acceptable chap (and rich), if one must marry — to pursue her own independence. “I’ll probably never marry,” Isabel tells her cousin Richard defiantly. Fine.
But then she inherits a fortune from her uncle, and it’s off to Florence, where she fails under the evil influence of the mysterious Ms. Merrill (Hershey) and the perfectly skeezey Mr. Osmond (Malkovich). At no time did I doubt that Isabel would marry Osmond, although she does so without much provocation and for no reason I could discern.

Not only is Isabel inconsistent, she’s also a bit dense. She must be told that Merrill and Osmond were lovers — she never even appears to question their relationship or wonder at the obvious deeper secret they keep. And Isabel never realizes on her own that Richard — who patently loves her dearly — is responsible for the fortune she inherited. Yes, I wanted to smack every character in this film, but mostly I wanted to smack Isabel.

Not to disparage Nicole Kidman’s performance — it’s not her fault Portrait doesn’t quite work. She’s rather good, actually — which is always a surprise to me. She’s one of those actors I want to hate — like Julia Roberts or Andie MacDowell — a nontalent trading on her looks. And yet every time I see her on screen, I’m reminded that she actually is talented, and chooses challenging roles that show off that talent nicely.

Conversely, I keep forgetting how much I’ve come to hate John Malkovich. He used to be so refreshing — he was malevolent in his own unique way. Now, I’m bored with his consistently one-note performances — and always the same note, no matter the role. His Osmond was hardly different from the psycho he played in In the Line of Fire. Get over yourself, John.

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