The Portrait of a Lady (1993)


Our rating: 2 out of 5

Rated: PG13

reviewed by Charity Bishop


Isabel Archer (Nichole Kidman) is a strong-willed and determined young woman who has just turned down a perfectly good wedding proposal -- to the distress of her uncle and the wan curiosity of her cousin, the sickly Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan), who is not expected to live out the year. A bright and charming if innocent and naive young American, she finds the wealthy lord does not please her and is determined to stay single. When her uncle dies he leaves her a vast fortune, a surprise to her aunt and her charming friend Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), who encourages her to follow her dreams and to take advantage of the life before her. 


Isabel travels to Rome on holiday where she encounters -- at Madame Merle's insistence -- the languid and strangely mysterious Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), a man with neither fame nor fortune, ambition, or good looks. Yet Isabel is drawn to him and his daughter, the silent and reclusive Pansy (Valentina Cervi) who has lived her life in a convent under the care of the nuns. A year passes, and Lord Warburton, whose proposal had been so callously tossed aside, not once but twice has come to repay her a visit, to seek out the rumors that she has broken her promise of remaining single to marry this Mr. Osmond. Indeed she has and sends him off with a rebuff. She has been drawn to Gilbert's tastes and his apparently passionate love for her and plunges ahead into wedded bliss, despite her cousin's predictions that she will be unhappy.  But what the future holds is much more than she had anticipated, from Pansy's first love interest to the truth behind Gilbert Osmond as well as Madame Merle.


If the film is anything in particular, it's strange and unnerving. The director uses often close angels, paying particular attention to hands and eyes, but the scenes are dark and overall it's depressing and suggestive. It takes too long to tell a very uncomplicated story and with the omitted fifteen minutes of interest in the very middle of the film, I was uncommonly bored and only finished it to complete my review. The opening begins with Australian women speaking of their first kiss (what does that have to do with 1872 England, I ask you?) to a strange black and white series of shots in the "silent picture" style that offer the film's most pointed reason for staying away from the story altogether -- female frontal nudity. There is little language and no violence but the overall sense of the film is manipulation and seduction. Isabel imagines being kissed and caressed by the men in her life in an eerie scene in her chambers. Osmond comes on to Madame Merle and fondles her. (His hand goes down instead of up, if you get my drift.) There's a nude statue in one scene and Osmond strikes Isabel with a glove several times as well as stepping on the hem of her gown to purposefully trip her. The last fifteen minutes of the film are of Isabel saying goodbye to her dying cousin (kissing him and staying close beside his bedside) and then again being confronted by Lord Warburton, who passionately kisses her and offers her a chance for happiness... all while she's still married.


Portrait of a Lady a depressing waste of two hours that offers brief but startling nudity, eeriness, and the hint of immorality with no redeeming qualities. The only thing halfway intelligent anyone says is that people must bear the results of their own decisions. Nicole Kidman was as lovely as ever and seemed especially at home in the lovely period costumes. For the first time I actually thought John Malkovich did a good performance. (Perhaps playing the nasty seducer of innocents is his forte?) His utterly dry, languid, and boring tone is ideal for Osmond. If you want pretty costumes, a hint of scandal and a depressing ending, forget this and get Gone With the Wind.