The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

I'm treading dangerous ground here: in the circles in which I travel, admitting that you prefer the populist literary adaptations of Merchant/Ivory to an austere, moody, Artistic-with-a-capital-"A" film like Jane Campion's version of Henry James' novel The Portrait of a Lady is tantamount to treason, if not heresy. I'm willing, however, to risk the righteous indignation of cinéastes everywhere by confessing that I had to struggle to stay awake while watching Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), James' misguided heroine, stumble into the loveless, degrading web spun by evil aesthete Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich). James Ivory and Ismael Merchant (who have filmed two James adaptations -- neither of which I've seen -- and are reportedly currently working on a third) would undoubtedly have simplified and trivialized the source material, but they would also have found and preserved its pulse, skillfully or no; Campion, on the other hand, opted to chloroform the book and mount it on celluloid, so that the only possible response is a detached, mournful, "My, how beautiful." Soporifically paced and virtually opaque, The Portrait of a Lady comes to life only when Campion attempts to throw off the literary shackles imposed by James' novel (her interest in which seems entirely sociopolitical, judging by how little attention she and screenwriter Laura Jones pay to the characters' interior lives), as in a nifty black-and-white experimental film that anachronistically chronicles her whirlwind tour of the Mediterranean, two decades before Edison and/or the Lumière brothers invented the medium. The rest of the film, unfortunately, is a colossal bore, consisting almost entirely of conversations in monotone (the acclaim and awards allotted to Martin Donovan and Barbara Hershey, both of whom are merely adequate, baffles me; Hershey, in particular, seems to be doing little more than an impressive Genevieve Bujold impression) between people about whom we know virtually nothing and about whom I consequently cared little. Yes, it's a more ambitious approach than one usually sees with regard to film adaptations of great novels, but I'll take any five minutes of Anthony Hopkins' "conventional" performance in The Remains of the Day over this entire tedious specimen. Memo to Ms. Campion and Ms. Jones (An Angel at My Table): Please leave the lit films to people who can't write. You can.