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.