In Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, the newly wealthy American, Isabel Archer, exercising her freedom in defiance of all common sense, makes a disastrous marriage to a dilettante and poseur – Gilbert Osmond, an American expatriate living in Italy with no ambition beyond perfecting his taste. In short order, Osmond drains Isabel’s pocket, and her spirit. Some years into the marriage, Isabel sits in the magnificent Roman palace in which the two live (it is the 1870s), and James writes as follows:
“It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air; Osmond’s beautiful mind, indeed, seemed to peep down from a small high window and mock at her. Of course it was not physical suffering; for physical suffering there might have been a remedy. She could come and go; she had her liberty; her husband was perfectly polite. He took himself so seriously; it was something appalling. Under all his culture, his cleverness, his amenity, under his good nature, his facility, his knowledge of life, his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers.”
On and on it goes, one extraordinary sentence after another, a review of Isabel’s life, her ideals, her motives in marrying, all of it composed with an eloquence and an attentiveness to the nuances of experience and emotion perhaps without equal in American literature. Which brings us to the eternal pathos of film adaptations: writers and directors fall in love with great novels and then can’t get more than a fraction of that love on the screen. In Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, adapted by the screenwriter Laura Jones, there isn’t a single word of James’s famous summing-up. What appears in the Roman scenes is interesting and physically impressive, but almost meaningless: We see the sullen predominance of Osmond (John Malkovich), now absurdly wearing a Renaissance cape and skullcap, lording it over poor Isabel (Nicole Kidman), who, angry but too frightened to assert herself, walks through her opulent rooms in a cloud of misery. Osmond’s pretensions and hisself-seriousness are telegraphed well enough by the clothes and by Malkovich’s caressingly hostile manner. Kidman’s erect slenderness is stiffer than earlier in the movie (her head with its piled auburn hair now seems balanced precariously on her spinal column), and her eyes dart nervously here and there. There is some physical eloquence in the settings and in Wojiech Kilar’s music. But we are puzzled. How did Isabel get stuck with such a monster in the first place? What is she thinking? Why does she stay with him? She seems a mere victim, and readers of the book will miss the intellectual fire of James’s heroine as well as the flowing commentary that makes Isabel’s situation so moving. A more expressive actress than Nicole Kidman might have conveyed something else – a greater consciousness, perhaps – but the absence of words would finally have done anyone in.
Yes, it is unfair to compare a movie to the classic book it is based on, but reading the book can sometimes help one understand what has gone wrong in a movie. This adaptation sticks to James’s plot, and much of it is extremely beautiful: Photographer Stuart Dryburgh (who worked with Campionon The Piano) shoots Florentine gardens and churches with subdued magnificence. The movie is not stiff or literal – on the contrary, it is overflowing with visual ideas. But despite a few playful moments, Portrait is essentially a solemn art exercise, not a work of art. It lacks wit, fire, and intelligence; it is heavy-spirited, and serious about women in a way that has more to do with contemporary feminism at its most melodramatic than with James’s paradox of extreme freedom leading to extreme imprisonment.
There is a peculiar prelude in which contemporary Australian girls, posed languorously in a forest, muse about their romantic hopes. The sequence, in every way a disaster, is meant to establish what Isabel, in an earlier, more discreet age, could not have openly expressed about desire. When the movie gets going, Isabel is ensconced at the estate of her wealthy American cousins in England, the Touchetts, and is already refusing her first proposal – from Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), an extremely wealthy English aristocrat. Kidman, covered to the neck in a black dress, stares angrily, as if affronted by the offer of marriage to a lord. Campion gives us immense close-ups, as if the actors could tell us everything without words. But they cannot tell us everything.
Campion and screenwriter Jones ignore James’s brilliant social comedy – the witty play of English and American customs, the perfect manners that yield confrontations more bruising than anything we moderns, with our alleged directness, ever approach. Instead, Campion alternates those empty close-ups with dreamlike episodes in which Isabel seems lost amid her own highly decorated fantasies. The gardens and churches she walks through become areas of rich, dark color and alternating patches of light and shadow; she appears to be searching for sexual release at the center of a maze of discomfort. She has fantasies of her various suitors – the men she has haughtily rejected – making love to her all at once. James’s social comedy (which leads to a kind of tragedy) has been transformed into a tale of erotic frustration.
Drifting and inarticulate, Isabel doesn’t quite seem there, and her relationship with Osmond isn’t there either. Malkovich, of course, has been playing Osmond all his life, and the manipulative, insinuating manner, the quirks and malevolent shifts of attention and emphasis, have become irritatingly familiar. Malkovich gets one part of Osmond very well – his way of never seeming to do anything wrong or aggressive while efficiently draining the life out of everyone he touches. But Osmond is supposed to be charming, and Malkovich, dark-bearded, with glinting eyes set in a frightening skull, seems like a creep and a phony – Mephistopheles in a dressing gown – from the start. The movie collapses for the most commonplace reasons: We can’t imagine what Isabel sees in him; we can’t imagine why Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), Isabel’s vaguely sinister and compromised older friend, who schemes with Osmond, is in his thrall.
The way Laura Jones and Jane Campion have refashioned the material, Isabel isn’t really a heroine. Or rather: She’s a visual rather than a dramatic concept. Nicole Kidman has pale coloring, blue eyes, a small, libidinous mouth. She is extraordinary looking, and she can do certain things – blank defiance, sexual avidity – with startling intensity. Here, alas, she’s playing a ninny. James had in mind something very different, and the changes are crippling. In the book, Isabel Archer is deluded less by inexperience than by an overdeveloped sense of honor. In the movie, Isabel seems a masochist and a fool – a woman merely afraid of her sexual desires, and therefore someone conventionally victimized by an earlier period’s ideas about women. The audience can “understand” her, rage on her behalf, pity her – but she’s been turned into a cliché. Nicole Kidman dressed all in white, ambling through an erotic fairyland of Florentine gardens, is a sight to see, but only a sight.
The simple point of Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi is that racism is still alive in the South – the ghosts of hatred, violence, and contempt will not rest. The movie chronicles the efforts of Myrlie Evers (Whoopi Goldberg), widow of slain civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, to bring to justice the odious Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods), who was tried twice for the murder of her husband in the sixties, both trials ending in a hung jury. In the late eighties, Myrlie finds an ardent young prosecutor, Bobby De Laughter (Alec Baldwin), who fights to reopen the case. Despite the disapproval of all the white folks in Bobby’s circle – the ghosts – he does go after the madly gleeful De La Beckwith, who had thought himself home free.
Ghosts is exceptionally well-meaning, but it’s the kind of film that no one who is not actually a violent racist could argue with. Baldwin soberly explains the necessity of justice over and over, to his wife, to his boss, to his children, and after a while we begin to feel like children ourselves. The movie tries to turn boringness into a virtue. Every time Rob Reiner builds a little suspense, he goes off into a civics lesson, but he has nothing interesting to say. The only wild card – the only life – in the picture is Woods, who plays Beckwith as a brazen, wicked entertainer who is proud of having killed Medgar Evers; the murder is the great achievement of De La Beckwith’s life, and he wants everyone to know it.
I’ve grown increasingly restive at such films as Mississippi Burning, A Time to Kill, and Ghosts of Mississippi. For white liberals, there is confusion over affirmative action, dismay over the underclass, a general sense that the races are growing farther apart. But this they know: There were bad people in the Deep South, and good whites finally went after them. All three films celebrate the heroism of white law officers in prosecuting racist killers. We can’t do anything serious to improve race relations, but we can at least put those bastards in jail. The filmmakers are hugging themselves in a storm to make sure they’re in one piece. This self-embrace may be comforting, but the winds still howl.