Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Henry James's 'Portrait of a Lady': More Than Just a Pretty Picture Jane Campion's Film Richly Reflects the Novel That Inspired It

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Henry James's 'Portrait of a Lady': More Than Just a Pretty Picture Jane Campion's Film Richly Reflects the Novel That Inspired It

Article excerpt

As literary films continue their wave of popularity, English authors Jane Austen and William Shakespeare are getting some competition from a giant with American roots: Henry James, whose novels are passing before the camera with unusual frequency these days. "Washington Square" will be in theaters before long, and "The Wings of the Dove" recently went into production.

Paving the way for them is a splendid adaptation that will be hard for the others to match. "The Portrait of a Lady," directed by Jane Campion, brings intelligence and sensitivity to a story rich in psychological subtlety and sociological detail.

Although a few scenes lapse into garden-variety melodrama or sentiment, the picture as a whole ranks with the year's most impressive achievements. It's also a better example of novel adaptation than other recent Austen pictures - "Emma" and "Persuasion" and "Sense and Sensibility" - since it translates the intellectual vigor of James's prose into an imaginative visual style. Campion's goal is to bypass mere prettiness in favor of a deeper resonance that's almost dreamlike in its immediacy. The heroine is Isabel Archer, a young American visiting relatives at their comfortable English estate. A smart and attractive woman, if limited in her experience of the world, she soon finds herself rejecting marriage offers from a British aristocrat and an American traveler. Impressed by her independence and somewhat in love with her, a gentle but sickly cousin persuades her elderly uncle to settle a fortune on her in his will. This should auger a bright future for Isabel, but life in a Henry James novel is rarely so simple. She falls under the spell of Gilbert Osmond, a smooth-mannered American with an overdeveloped ego and a passion for accumulating well-turned works of art. Prompted by a sensual old friend named Madame Merle, he decides that Isabel should join his collection of beautiful things. She marries him, somewhat to her own surprise, and spends the next portion of her life regretting the emotional trap in which he has ensnared her. Writing about this novel in his notebook, James observed that the first chapters suffer from "a want of action. …

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