The Portrait of a Lady (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This adaptation of a Henry James novel (a searchable online version is in the public domain) was left dead in the water as a stand-alone film because of an egregious casting mistake: John Malkovich as Osmond. Malkovich delivers his usual creepy, ophidian performance here, and it just doesn't work. As a result, the whole film makes no sense unless you have read the book and understand the characters' motivations.

If you have not read the book, here's what you see:

Isabel, a beautiful and strong-minded American woman turns down an offer of marriage from a distinguished British lord. This lord is fairly young and neither ugly nor creepy, but she turns him down because she simply doesn't know enough about life to make an informed choice. That tells us a lot about her character. She has some very strong convictions about how she should live her life. Since she has no money of her own, her rejection is not merely a sacrifice of all the comforts that the lord might provide, but also a gamble that might result with her ending up impoverished and miserable. She is brave and daring enough to risk everything to find the "right" man, and thoughtful enough to think her decisions through carefully. Then she inherits some money of her own through a plot contrivance which we needn't concern ourselves with here, and who does she end up with? Malkovich. What happened to all the savvy and self-examination she showed when she turned down the lord? She rejected a perfectly nice, if stiff-assed, guy to marry an obviously arrogant and slithering creep? Makes no sense. How could he fool her for an hour, let alone finagle a marriage with her? This guy, as played by Malkovich, couldn't fool Miss Piggy.

The point missed by the film is that Henry James's character of Gilbert Osmond is incredibly charming. He may be a scoundrel and a layabout at heart, but he has the intellectual and physical presence to woo a smart, rich woman who knows he is not rich, and to be able to convince that woman that he is interested in her for more than money. Malkovich, sinister and insinuating as always, is practically walking around with a "phony" sign on his chest. In every situation he's obviously being only as polite as required, delivering every line on the very edge of condescension and self-absorption. Isabel's acuity has earlier been established by her rejection of the lord. How the hell could that sharp woman fall for this guy? Never happen. The Osmond role needed to belong to a George Clooney or a Redford, or even a younger version of Tom Selleck, a man capable of completely disguising his intentions and his character flaws, and even of wooing her back once she becomes aware of those flaws. Astoundingly, just such an actor was in the cast, but was relegated to an insignificant part. Handsome, hunky Viggo Mortensen, who can play "wholesome and noble" very convincingly, was relegated to a minor role. (This was also some bizarre casting. Isabel refers to Viggo's character as "ugly" and Malkovich's as "beautiful"!! Do you think she got the two confused?) If Viggo had been cast as Osmond, it would have been perfectly credible to have Isabel fall for what he appeared to be, only to be ultimately disillusioned by the other man beneath his perfect exterior.

Viggo was not really known well enough at that time to be considered for the lead male role, but director Jane Campion was on the right track for a while. She originally pursued William Hurt to play Gilbert Osmond, and he would have been a much better choice than Malkovich, but Hurt lacked the "commitment" to the part, so was dropped from the project. Astoundingly, Malkovich had originally been penciled in to play the caring, supportive Ralph Toucett, which would have been an even worse casting decision than the final assignments! Martin Donovan ended up doing an excellent job with the Toucett role after Malkovich was switched to Osmond.

The film is not without interesting elements. You can see two future superstars in the budding, not only Aragorn, but Batman as well. Batman was especially young: Christian Bale was barely 21 when this film was lensed. Some of the other cast members are interesting as well: Shelley Winters is on hand, Barbara Hershey appears in an Oscar-nominated turn, and Martin Donovan creates the film's most sympathetic character. In addition to some fine performances, the film offers splendid scenery and its costumes won an Oscar nomination. As you might guess from those characteristics, Portrait scores significantly higher with women: IMDb 6.3, versus 5.5 from men.

Despite the positives, I'm not really convinced that this book was ever meant to be made into a movie at all. A very high percentage of its merit consists of its eloquent, insightful sentences. Nothing much ever happens. James himself wrote in his preface that the best part of the book consists of Isabel sitting motionless in a chair. Now that's good cinema, right there! James was not unaware of the introspective nature of his work, and that his talents lay as a wordsmith, not as an scenarist. When a theatrical company approached him to adapt it into a play, he flat-out told them that it couldn't be done. Director Jane Campion would have done well to listen to his words. Instead, she not only took a stab at it, but she spent 144 minutes of screen time trying to prove the master wrong about his own creation. The result was a film which was not only overlong, talky, and inert (as James himself would have predicted), but ultimately rendered nonsensical by the casting of Malkovich.



  • No features
  • There is a widescreen version and a full screen version, but the widescreen rendering is letterboxed, not enhanced for 16x9 screens. Both transfers are too dark.

NOTE: If you have the option, get the Region 2 DVD instead! It is much better than the Region 1 offering in two ways. (1) The widescreen transfer is anamorphically enhanced. (2) There is an excellent 50 minute documentary on the making of the film. There is no full-screen rendering, but you'll have no reason to regret that.


Nicole Kidman shows her bum, and then her breasts, in a black and white sequence.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: three out of four stars. James Berardinelli 3/4, Roger Ebert 3/4.

  • It was nominated for two Oscars: costumes and Best Supporting Actress (Barbara Hershey). It won neither.


The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C-, a film not without strengths, but of interest only to people already predisposed to like the source material or filmed costumers.

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