The Seasoned Ticket #168

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

Jane Campion’s 12-time-Oscar-nominated film The Power of the Dog is a much-deserved triumph for an important filmmaker. We should have something Scarecrow Academy-related about Jane Campion coming up next month, which we’ll describe very soon. In the meantime, here’s a brief appreciation of one of Campion’s key movies, which has been overlooked since its 1996 release: her adaptation of Henry James’ masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady. The film is not exactly easy to get close to, but it works superbly on its own terms, and it’s a kind of model of adaptation in the sense that it actually attempts to translate literary qualities into cinematic language. Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has some of the same effect: You have to be watching the movie, really watching, to understand it. The piece was written in ’96 for, evidently in the wake of the release of The English Patient.

People are talking about The English Patient as a tough book to adapt for film. True enough, but try on Henry James and The Portrait of a Lady if you want a real job. How to replace pages and pages of elegantly wrought paragraphs of exhaustive psychological observation? Jane Campion’s solution is movie alchemy of the highest order. Virtually every shot in her film of Portrait furthers a rigorous pattern of visual storytelling, in which the play of color, sound, light and shadow, camera movement, all impart meaning. In an age of sloppy moviemaking, Campion’s command of these elements is awesome. 

The effect of all this, it must be said, is a certain formal chilliness, which is entirely appropriate to the story at hand. No question, however, that the film lacks the warm and romantic (if perverse) texture of The Piano, as well as a certain mystery that oozed out of the softer edges of that memorable movie. The trajectory of Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), the American traveler who takes a Grand Tour of Europe and makes a bad marriage along the way, is no romance, but a cool, unsparing coming-of-age. Campion doesn’t make this easy for the audience by broadening the story, or making Isabel into a simpler, less stubborn character. And the casting of Nicole Kidman turns out to be inspired, because Kidman’s journey mirrors Isabel’s. We may underestimate her at first, spotting callowness, but the actress grows in strength during the film. 

Campion has added some bold modern touches, such as Isabel’s fantasy of three lovers at once, and a black-and-white sequence that would not be out of place in a film by the surrealists. You won’t find this sort of thing in a Merchant Ivory picture, and that is exactly what distinguishes Portrait from other period literary adaptations; as true as Campion is to her source, the film is utterly idiosyncratic, unmistakable as anyone else’s work. There is no one else in movies today quite like her.

February 18, 2022


Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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