The End of InnocenceSeptember 18, 2014

When people talked about Nicole Kidman's filmography, only a few would mention "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996), an adaptation of Henry James's novel. It was a turning point in the American novelist's career, on which his works after "Portrait" were characterised as unpopular novels of social analysis. Some saw James in Isabel Archer, the novel's lead character who went to Europe full of hope and enthusiasm. But she ended up trapped and disillusioned.

"I really loved Portrait, even if it didn't satisfy people's expectations about what I should be doing. It's complex, because life isn't a career," director Jane Campion said.

If it weren't Campion, who won the Palme d'Or for "The Piano" (1993), then other filmmakers might have depicted "Portrait" as a quaint version of a 19th-century dating game. But the book went deeper.

Old versus new

To appreciate "The Portrait of a Lady", one must have a knowledge of the social structure in Europe and America during the 19th century.

Isabel Archer was young and independent, who went to the continent after inheriting a large amount of money. There were suitors, all American expatriates, whom she turned down. When Isabel accepted the offer of a certain George Osmond, another expat, little did she knew that she was heading into a trap. She was too late to find out that wealth could turned an ordinary life into a storied one, but the path was laid with deceit.

The novel's ending, where Isabel returned to the estate she lived with George, would intrigue readers. It could be a bitter reaction on how her life turned out. It could also be seen as an act of compassion for someone who was dear to her. (The person was a relative of George.) Either way, this might how James saw his life. He was one of the tens of American writers living in Europe, hopeful of making their literary vision a reality. But the continent was rocked by conflicts and cultural movements. It was a clash between the values of the Old World and America's progressive ideals, often to the detriment of the latter. One could only speculate their beliefs.

Not too literal

Campion's version was more of an experiment, a feminist vision by Isabel if she were dreaming. It was a bold move on the part of the New Zealand filmmaker, with Stuart Dryburgh's photography giving it an otherworldly look. Kidman's Isabel was a demure figure. Some fans of the novel were surprised, as James portrayed the young lady as headstrong. But the author of "The American" would approve of such an interpretation. (If she were really stubborn, then she might have seen through the Machiavellian scheming around her.)

The big-screen version of "The Portrait of a Lady" was a mixed bag, but those looking for a different perspective would be satisfied with Campion's take. As for Kidman, she was grieving as of late.

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