New Zealand director Jane Campion opens THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (Gramercy, PG-13) with a black screen and the voice-over musings of contemporary young Australian women on love and sex. Then comes a wordless parade of gravely lovely, anonymous girls, who look directly at the camera, and us -- posed in trendy black-and-white natural-portraiture style. Campion's Madison Avenue-influenced intro has nothing whatever to do with James' exquisitely framed and plotted 1881 novel about Isabel Archer, a young American heroine abroad who falls for the wrong man. (Nor, for that matter, does it have much to do with the rest of the director's full-color, full-costume production.) But the device immediately establishes Campion's intention to shape James' astute, stately 19th-century story of one woman's willful spirit, and, it turns out, humbling naivete, to her own highly developed 20th-century feminist sensibilities. This ain't no Merchant Ivory party, she announces from the outset. This ain't no Masterpiece Theatre disco.
It is, though, some fooling around. To which, I should say at the outset, I have no objection in principle. Campion's feel for loner women who follow their own compass, regardless of the consequences (manifest in all her films, from Sweetie to The Piano), is a big asset in taking on such a daunting old master. Another, less headstrong filmmaker might have felt awed, or at the very least cautious, in the presence of all that luscious prose.
Not Campion. In Portrait, Isabel (Nicole Kidman, who, at her best moments, beams a mix of self-contented willfulness and redeeming naivete) ignores the attentions of decent young men, including her gentle, consumptive, dying cousin, Ralph (Martin Donovan), the highly eligible Lord Warburton (The Player's Richard E. Grant), and earnest suitor Caspar Goodwood (Daylight's Viggo Mortensen). Instead, sampling Europe on a bequest from her late uncle (John Gielgud), Isabel is taken by the refined sensibilities of reptilian aesthete Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), to whom she is introduced by the scheming Mme. Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey).
Cushioned by money and an American sense of entitled adventurousness, Isabel enters into a wrongheaded marriage to the coldly snobby Osmond that only traps her. And Campion represents this condition in artsy imagery of barred cages, as well as in underground-film-style dream sequences in which Isabel's sexual fantasies are rendered just this side of creepy (what would Henry think!). Kidman's sky blue eyes fill with tears. Malkovich -- who might as well have kept his Dangerous Liaisons scoundrel wear on, so little changed is his performance -- fondles porcelain teacups with more affection than he can get up for any human. Hershey rises to her juicy role. Donovan, sprung from all those itchy Hal Hartley films, gives a really great performance. Bright secondary casting choices include Mary-Louise Parker, Shelley Duvall, and Little Women's Christian Bale.
In her restless urge to bust through James' prose with female imagery, however, Campion misses a crucial point: The author is a feminist's friend, not an enemy. His understanding of the psychology of women and men, Americans and Europeans, old money and new, was intuitive and ''feminine'' enough not to require sexual fantasy sequences for effect. But weirdly -- because it doesn't fit her agenda, perhaps? -- Campion (working from a script by Laura Jones, who also wrote Campion's An Angel at My Table) shies away from depicting Isabel Archer as a specific woman -- a woman the author himself drew much more clearly and compassionately. This Isabel is a cipher who offers no clue as to why she would want to marry Malkovich's Osmond. There are reasons, of course, but they're bound up in a long, languid book that doesn't translate meaningfully into portraits of contemporary Australian women. In aiming for a new kind of lit-drama cool, Jane Campion freezes the warmth right out of Henry James' expansive heart. B-