Making the Grades
Portrait won't make for an easy evening in front of the tube. Even at 2 1/2 hours, I felt like pieces were still missing in the film's complex plot. From what others tell me, Henry James's novel, upon which the script is based, offers many more insights as to why these people, especially the central figure, Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), make the choices they do.
The orphaned Isabel travels from America to England to live with her wealthy aunt, uncle, and cousin Ralph (Martin Donovan). Society is shocked when she boldly claims her independence by refusing a proposal from a titled gentleman. When her uncle becomes ill, Ralph, who also loves her, convinces his father to leave a generous inheritance to her. The money allows her to pursue her dreams, the first being a visit to Rome, where she meets and illogically marries the mysterious Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich).
From this time until just minutes from the end, the audience is left wondering just what Osmond, who in the film (unlike the book) appears evil from the onset, and his associate Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), who is obviously more than a friend, are up to. Merle certainly drops the biggest clue that all is not right when she confidently proclaims, "I don't pretend to know what people are meant for. I only know what I can do with them.''
For adults and older teens that are serious about James's work, Portrait will probably be an interesting view. There is nothing of interest here for younger viewers, and sensual innuendo and even blatant sexual situations, with clothes on, occur in three short scenes. A moment of topless nudity, apart from these three scenes, is also present.
What does give this story merit is that consequences are vividly portrayed. Isabel has the best intentions, makes the worst choices, and suffers permanently. It's just unfortunate that in the movie version, we cannot get to know the characters well enough to understand why she was caught in Osmond's trap so easily.