By: Alex Phuong (Three Beers) –
Henry James was one of the major figures in both American and British literature. His writing was groundbreaking because of his literary classics that included The Turn of the Screw and The Bostonians. Since great literature oftentimes results in great films, an adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady might have sounded like a good idea. However, the 1996 film version is lukewarm at best.
Probably the best part of this film is Barbara Hershey’s Oscar-nominated performance as “Madame Serena Merle.” She might be a spiteful character, but Serena is still very interesting because of her ambitious persona. Barbara Hershey’s portrayal of this character is unique because it is almost as if she plays a character that audiences love to hate. One of the most famous examples of this occurrence was when Heath Ledger won an Oscar posthumously for playing the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). That makes this character a great villain!
And of course, since this film is a period drama, it features Oscar-nominated costumes from the late Janet Patterson. Jane Campion received an Oscar nomination for directing The Piano (1993) and Patterson received a “Best Costume Design” nomination for that film, so it is not that surprising that these two women would collaborate again on The Portrait of a Lady.
In spite of the strong talent both in front of and behind the camera, this is not Jane Campion’s greatest directorial effort. That is because some people might consider her masterpiece to be The Piano (1993), which earned her a “Best Director” nomination while also winning an Oscar for her original screenplay. Nicole Kidman is currently one of the most iconic actresses in Hollywood today (as of 2019), but this is not her best performance either. Not many people might have even known that Nicole Kidman starred in this film, especially since her most iconic roles include playing Satine in Moulin Rouge! (2001) and winning her first Oscar as Virginia Woolf in The Hours the following year in 2002. John Malkovich adds star power to this film, but he is more widely recognized for the 1999 classic Being John Malkovich instead of this bland period drama.
I specifically used the word “bland” in my previous sentence because I thought that this film was one of the longest and most boring films I have ever seen when I saw it for the first time in 2011. I have actually spent twenty-five hours of my life listening to the audio book of Henry James’s classic, and considered it to be long and boring. When I saw the film after finishing the novel, I also thought that the film was long and boring (especially since it is almost two-and-a-half hours long). Then again, I was very young back then, and did not appreciate literature like I do now (especially after earning my English degrees at PCC and CSULA), but I would never admire Henry James in the same manner that I like other famous writers, like Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. Maybe Jane Campion should have written the adapted screenplay instead of having Laura Jones perform that task?
On a side note, Nicole Kidman herself did not appreciate the original novel when she read it when she was a young student, but she did fall in love with it when she read the novel again was she was twenty-one. (I personally never re-read novels because I do not have the patience to re-read a novel that I have already read, especially if the number of pages is really high.)
This might not be the greatest period drama of all time, but at least it does its best to bring one of Henry James’s greatest novels to the silver screen. Period dramas are known for capturing the era of the time period in which a classic novel is set, but The Portrait of a Lady could have been a better film if it somehow made the story more entertaining. Not everyone likes film adaptations of literary classics, but at least this film features what is currently Barbara Hershey’s first and only Oscar-nominated performance (as of 2019).
The Portrait of a Lady (1996) Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Isabel Archer exerts her own independence in spite of the social conventions that attempt to restrict her
Take a Drink: every time the film explores contrasts between American and European culture in the 19th century (especially since Henry James himself was an American-British author)
Drink a Shot: for every stylish umbrella that women hold as they wear their Oscar-nominated costumes
And Cheers!: to Isabel Archer as she confronts her destiny even though it is overwhelming for her