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Saturday, 14 November 2015

Jane Campion's take on Henry James

Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady is a film adaptation that I don't recommend to those who haven't read the novel, who may be confused about what's going on; nor to those who have read and not enjoyed it, who aren't likely to appreciate Henry James better; and perhaps not to those who have read and loved the novel either, who may be bothered by the omissions and the miscasting.
Adapting James is difficult- much of his greatness is in dealing with nuances of feeling, with words unspoken and feelings unexpressed. Much is lost when brought to the screen. 1 of the best parts of the book, Isabel's dilemma regarding Warburton and Pansy, is simplified, whilst many of the characters, already impressionistic in James's book, are flattened. Worse than that, too much is left out, glossed over- of course omissions there must be when a novel's turned into a film, but in this case they make it hard to understand for people unfamiliar with the story.
The good thing about this film is that it's not a lazily faithful adaptation. Jane Campion doesn't merely turn words into images, she takes James's material and does something interesting with it- her film is an interpretation. It is bold from the start, as we hear the voice of some girl describing the feeling of the moment just before being kissed, which isn't in the book, and as the names start to appear, we see several young women, young modern women around Isabel's age, dancing, swaying, looking at the camera. Then there's a close-up of Nicole Kidman's face as Isabel Archer. The scene is of Warburton proposing to her, which means that Campion cuts everything before that moment including character introductions. That juxtaposition heightens the comparison/ contrast she wants to make between Isabel and modern young women of the same age.
Another bold move is that Campion sexes up the story, mostly through 2 fantasy sequences. The 1st one is when Goodwood touches Isabel's face, and she fantasises about her suitors. What does it mean? That she fears the erotic? Or that she does want Goodwood and/or Warburton but, at that point, still chooses her freedom and independence? The 2nd fantasy is about Osmond. This is an interpretation of the original book- Isabel is sexually attracted to him. Campion also makes other changes regarding the villain- there's a scene in which he holds Pansy in his arms and caresses her in a way that seems to suggest incest and molestation; he becomes more malevolent, and violent, as he physically attacks Isabel whilst still talking in his soft, icy cold voice. Sadly, this is where the problem lies- for the role of Gilbert Osmond, Campion casts John Malkovich. He plays well a villain, a psycho of sorts, with good manners, and his voice is perfect- soft, thin, low, languid, drawly, simultaneously soothing and menacing. But his looks are wrong, and it is hard to see how Isabel rejects 2 men but accepts him. Though I admittedly can't see John Malkovich without seeing Lennie Small, Mitch Leary or Marvin Boggs and didn't even believe in his Vicomte de Valmont (Dangerous Liaisons), looking through several reviews makes me feel less alone- many critics are also unconvinced. Why Isabel chooses Osmond in the novel can be interpreted in multiple ways, it's a combination of factors rather than a single reason. By sexing up the story, Campion offers an explanation, a simplified one, and to make it worse, the simple answer is not convincing.
The choice of Barbara Hershey for the role of Madame Merle is, too, problematic. There is a hardness on her face that causes distrust right from the start, and even though Campion lets us identify the villains and their relations before Isabel does, it's not easy to see how Isabel's charmed with and drawn to Madame Merle. That I say as someone that has read James's novel. A person who hasn't can't see Isabel's adoration of and confidence in Madame Merle, which later reduces the effect of the revelation that in the book shocks and shatters Isabel (it is this shocking news that acts as a catalyst for her defiance). On the other hand, Campion and Hershey make her more of a tragic figure, more manipulated than manipulative. That's an interesting change. As Madame Merle becomes more tragic, Osmond becomes a bigger villain.
In short, this is an unsuccessful adaptation, but an interesting one. Perhaps that is a good enough reason for one to watch it. 

10 comments:

  1. Di, I don't recall ever seeing a film version that I've liked of a novel that I've liked; instead, the film version always disappoint me. Perhaps that makes me a creature of the printed word in that I prefer my imagination to that of directors, actors, etc.

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    1. I should make a list of my favourite film adaptations.

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  2. By contrast, I have seen many film versions that I have liked of novels I have liked, oh so many, although when I saw this movie 20 years ago it was a film of a novel I had not read. Who do you think would find this movie confusing? Man, I routinely watched much more confusing movies than this one!

    But I do agree with you second point. Anyone who watches an adaptation to better understand the original work is a fool. You watch this one to better understand Jane Campion.

    I remember - and I have refreshed my memory a bit on Youtube - thinking Malkovich was terrific in the part, actually. We clearly have a very different picture of the Malkovich persona. To me, he is a great stage actor who went slumming in Hollywood. But I do remember thinking Hershey was not so strong. Reading the novel, it was Malkovich and Martin Donovan who really came back to me from the film.

    Look at that cast - Rosier is Batman! And of course, there is John Gielgud. I know it is not a big part, but there is a reason to watch this movie.

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    1. I need another word. What I mean is that, it's not confusing in the way a film like Inception is, say- we still know what the characters are doing, but not why they do what they do. Why Isabel marries Osmond, what's up with Warburton and Pansy, etc. When you watched it 20 years ago without having read the novel, you knew what was going on, but didn't know what was missing. Go see it again! As I told you, I don't trust my own judgement about anything I read or watched about more than 5 years ago.
      I watched the film with my mom and she hadn't read the book. It's not that she didn't understand the film, but the whole time watching it, I kept feeling that too much was left out or glossed over.
      Anyway, it's an interesting adaptation. At least I don't feel like I wasted time watching it.

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  3. The elements you describe as "missing" have no business being in a film. Why does Jean-Paul Belmondo shoot that cop?

    Is there more "missing" in Campion's movie than in an Kiarostami or Dardennes brothers film? Or Ozu or Antonioni? By those standards, Campion still explains way too much.

    The entire point of making a James adaptation - the artistic point - is that you are freed from the interiority, free from James, restoring the ambiguity, handing it over to the actors and imagery.

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    1. No, of course I don't expect a film adaptation to do everything a book does- it does something else, film is a different medium. It is not our inability to enter the characters' consciousness, which we can do when reading the novel, that hinders our understanding of their motives in this film, it's the omissions of details, actions and lines. For example, no adaptation of Anna Karenina can retain all the complexity and depth Tolstoy gives Anna in the novel, no film can compare to Tolstoy's novel in his depiction of Anna's feelings and thoughts as her relationship with Vronsky turns sour and oppressive, as her ennui and doubt turns into paranoia and misery and hatred, and I don't expect that, but I would say something is missing in the Sophie Marceau film, because there is a lack of development, because the change is too sudden and abrupt and therefore unnatural, incomprehensible. The actions and lines in the film are not enough, there's a sense that something is unexplained, left out.

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    2. Sure, most films fail as films. They fail on their own terms.

      "A sense of something unexplained," though - typically, I wish filmmakers left a lot more unexplained.

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    3. Okay I actually agree with you there- lots of times I wish the same. Christopher Nolan, for example, always lets (at least) 1 character voice what he means.

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  4. I haven't seen this flm (have I seen any film of the last 30 off years?) but it's good that Jane Campion attempts something new with the material, rather than merely attempt to present the material in cinematic terms.

    You say: "Adapting James is difficult- much of his greatness is in dealing with nuances of feeling, with words unspoken and feelings unexpressed." I tend to agree, but curiously, two of the very finest films based on novels have been based on Henry James' novels - William Wyler's "The Heiress", based on "Washington Square" and featuring Olivia de Haviland, Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift; and "The Innocents", directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr, based on "the Turn of the Screw".

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    1. I haven't seen The Innocents, but The Heiress is very good. I didn't know it was based on Washington Square, or rather, I knew that and forgot. Haven't read the book though.

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