6-12 September 2013 #672

The Portrait of a Lady

Sophia Pande

This week I am writing about one of my favourite directors, the New Zealander Jane Campion. While she is one of my favourites because of her unique feminine sensibility when it comes to her craft, it is not just because she is a woman that I am so enamoured of her films.

For anyone who has seen her searingly brilliant film The Piano (1993) which brought Campion firmly into the limelight and won an 11-year old Anna Paquin and the phenomenal Holly Hunter Oscars for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress respectively, you will probably have several images of the film indelibly embedded in your head.

This remarkable film about a young mute woman, Ada (Holly Hunter) is a remarkable study of the feminine psyche. Clearly this is a subject that Campion excels at: her next film The Portrait of a Lady came out in 1996 rather surprisingly to somewhat mixed reviews. Adapted from the Henry James novel of the same name, The Portrait of a Lady is a thoroughly engrossing psychological study of a young woman, Isabel Archer (played by a luminous Nicole Kidman), and the people whose lives she affects. The novel is a disconcertingly astute portrayal of people and their motivations, and the film with its excellent cast more than brings those famous characters to life.

With John Malkovich as Gilbert Osmond, Isabel’s malevolent and insidious husband; Barbara Hershey as Osmond’s scheming and amoral former lover Madam Merle; Martin Donovan as Isabel’s gentle, deeply perceptive but ailing cousin, Ralph Touchett - who has loved her for years; and the ever charismatic Viggo Mortensen as Caspar Goodwood, Isabel’s other long suffering admirer, the film is as gripping as the book, following Isabel’s evolution from a young free-thinking, spirited creature into a hunted, proscribed spouse who becomes a shadow of her vibrant, self romanticised being through her own supposedly independent choices.

As in her most recent film Bright Star (reviewed previously in this column), which starred Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne (the lover of the poet John Keats), all of Campion’s leads are indomitable women with their own flaws, carrying a certain adventurous spirit within their female bodies. It is perhaps this particular trait that captivates Campion’s imagination, who, while in search of realising them, makes them in turn, so very vivid to us.

Campion’s latest endeavour is a six part series titled Top of the Lake, a mini-series starring Elizabeth Moss as Robin Griffith, a detective who is investigating the disappearance of a twelve-year old pregnant girl. It has received glowing praise thus far and is due out soon.

Campion most often concentrates on the unique trials of being a complicated, imperfect woman in this difficult world. As always, I await her new endeavour impatiently, and with a great deal of hope. During the wait, everyone who has missed her films thus far can catch up on the adventures of Ada, Isabel and Fanny. You will be rapt, you may weep, hopefully some of you will be altered forever– that is the power of Jane Campion’s cinema.

See trailer:

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