Given The Piano's singular period story about an independent-minded woman, it is not surprising that Jane Campion's stylized version of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady (1996) is more of an interpretation rather than an adaptation. With an opening montage of modern women, Campion and screenwriter Laura Jones stake a claim to the contemporary resonance in the story of naïve American heiress Isabel Archer. Injecting moments of surreal fantasy into the beautifully expressive, blue-tinged period surroundings, Campion alludes to the cravings that provoke Isabel to reject a safe marriage in favor of freedom. Why Isabel is easily seduced by the scheming Mme. Merle and the reptilian fortune hunter Osmond, however, remains elusive; John Malkovich's transparently malevolent Osmond makes Nicole Kidman's Isabel an inexplicable fool for love. Still, Barbara Hershey's complex Mme. Merle speaks to the damage inflicted on women by an oppressive social order, while Martin Donovan's eloquently restrained cousin Ralph powerfully attests to what might have been for Isabel. Provoking a deeply mixed response, The Portrait of a Lady failed to repeat The Piano's success, though the costumes and Hershey's performance earned Oscar nominations.
by Lucia Bozzola review