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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.85:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 1:27:58)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • French: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish: Dolby Digital Stereo
  • Italian: Dolby Digital Stereo
  Subtitles
    English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese
  Extras
  • 1 Theatrical trailer
  • 1 Documentaries - Portrait: Jane Campion and the Portrait of A Lady

Portrait of a Lady

Universal/Universal . R4 . COLOR . 144 mins . M . PAL

  Feature
Contract

1996 was the year in which the film industry appeared to have rediscovered the world of classic literature. With the critical and box-office success of three Jane Austen screen adaptations - Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma - Baz Luhrmannís William Shakespeareís Romeo and Juliet and Michael Winterbottomís Jude, it seemed appropriate that Polgram Filmed Entertainment should release Jane Campionís Portrait of A Lady in the same year.

In the wake of her success with 1993ís The Piano - which won the coveted Palme DíOr at the Cannes Film Festival and gave her the distinction of becoming the first woman ever to receive the award - Campion shot Portrait of A Lady within a gruelling fourteen-week schedule. The filmís production took the director and her crew to various locations around the world, including England, UK, Tuscany, Italy and Sydney, Australia.

Making its debut in US theatres on 29 December 1996, Portrait of A Ladyís release was limited, appearing on only seven screens and reaping $134,805 on its opening weekend. The film had divided critics and audiences, who either lauded it as a cinematic masterpiece worthy of its literary counterpart, or panned it as a high-brow exercise in self-indulgence. Needless to say, Portrait of A Lady was a box-office disaster which could not be saved - even with its ensemble cast and talented director.

"I call people rich when theyíre able to meet the requirements of their imagination. "

Based on Henry Jamesí 1881 novel of the same name, Portrait of A Lady centers around Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), a young American idealist and feminist who, it seems, has a legion of suitors determined to take her hand in marriage. A free-spirited young woman, Isabel is afraid of commitment because of the limitations she feels it will impose on her. Isabel tactfully rebukes them all, including - much to the dismay of her friends - Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), an European nobleman who has followed her from Boston to England, and the wealthy Lord Warburton (Richard Grant).

Following the death of her own parents, Isabel resides in England with her aunt and uncle, the Touchetts (Shelly Winters and John Gielgud). Her intellectual but sickly cousin Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan) is somewhat enamoured with Isabel, and seems to be interested in which direction her independence will lead her. Despite his obvious affection for her, Isabel views Ralph as nothing more than a confidant. Upon the death of her uncle, Isabel receives his will and fortune; it seems as though there are no obstacles to impede her exploration of the world and what it has to offer.

However, fate throws a curve ball at Isabel - almost justifying her trepidation that her life is somehow pre-destined - in the form of Madame Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey). It is through Isabelís acquaintance with the unscrupulous, manipulating Merle that she is introduced to Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), an insidiously cultured but cold-hearted collector of objetsí de art. Merle and Osmond form a diabolical pact to wrestle Isabelís fortune from her; the unfortunate woman is oblivious of their intentions and perceives Osmond to be a man of gracious taste and refined sensibilities.

Beguiled by his insistent promises of love and devotion, Isabel hastily marries Osmond only to realise that she is but another ornament to his collection. Slowly and systematically, Osmond assumes total domination over every facet of Isabelís life; a self-absorbed sadist, Osmond seems to derive satisfaction from his wifeís torment. Isabelís only refuge from her husbandís abusive conduct is Pansy (Valentina Cervi), Osmondís innocuous daughter. However, even Isabelís relationship with Pansy is tarnished when she learns of the girlís true parentage.

  Video
Contract

Portrait of A Lady is presented in a 1.85:1 screen aspect ratio and 16:9 enhanced. Unfortunately, it is unnecessarily cropped from the original 2.35:1 theatrical screen aspect ratio - a practice which I cannot condone.

Blacks are mostly impenetrably solid, however, they seem to be somewhat opaque in certain scenes - particularly toward the latter part of the film. Shadow detail is excellent, with the Victorian side street in Chapter 11 proving to be a highlight. In this brief scene, we witness multiple shadows overlapping and mingling into each other, yet we can still plainly see the cobblestones on the ground.

Details are sharp, although they seem to become somewhat muted - again, toward the latter half of the film. However, this is not a transfer problem; I would attribute this to the fact that the majority of the scenes involved were evidently filmed with low lighting.

There are no visible MPEG artefacts. Although there are several instances of film artefacts, which consist of black and white dots, they are not intrusive. Despite this, there is a peculiar artefact which occurs in Chapter 4, involving the scene where Mrs. Touchett reveals the extent of Isabelís wealth to Merle. An anomaly - which appears to be either a watermark or print damage - traverses down the right side of Hersheyís face. Though it is fleeting, it is still somewhat noticeable.

Aliasing was detected in some sequences featuring buildings and structures - most notably, the horizontal pan of a Victorian street scene in Chapter 2, and the suburban landscape in Chapter 8. None of this, though, is intrusive.

Flesh-tones are accurate, when the filmís lighting and colour schemes permit. However, as it progresses inexorably towards its tragic conclusion, the filmís colour palette shifts from being vibrant to pale and sombre with a bluish tint, reflecting its dire mood.

Grain is often present in this transfer, which is not to be completely unexpected in a film that is predominantly dark and takes place mostly in darkened or dimly-lit environments. The most notable examples of this occurs in Chapter 9, when Warburton approaches Merle with a marriage proposal for Pansy; and Chapter 13, where Osmond chastises Isabel with his theories that she is directly responsible for the prevention of his daughterís marriage arrangements.

The layer transition occurs at 1:27:58, during a scene involving a horse-drawn carriage traversing down a side street. Placed at the end of Chapter 11, the change is somewhat jarring as the frame and accompanying noise suddenly freezes.

  Audio
Contract

There are four audio selections available - The English Dolby Digital 5.1, the French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, and the Italian Dolby Digital 2.0.

Naturally placed within the front speakers, dialogue is always clear and easy to understand and seemed to possess a somewhat rich texture. I did not detect any audio anomalies, such as distortion or sound drop-out.

The rear surrounds are mostly used for subtle noise and music, but they do produce moments of wonderfully enveloping ambience in some of the filmís key scenes - in particular, Chapter 2 when Kidman, in a surprisingly erotic scene, fantasises that she is being taken by three of her suitors; and in Chapter 7, where Osmand realises his seduction of Isabel in a cavernous subterranean chamber. Due to the combined soundfield, the dramatic quality of these scenes are greatly enhanced.

I should make special note of Portrait of A Lady's film score, provided by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar (whose credits include the memorable score for Bram Stoker's Dracula). His composition for this film, interspersed with selections from Strauss, Bach and Schubert, is stunningly emotive and is instrumental in bringing the audience to sympathise with Isabel's plight. In some respects, Portrait of A Lady's score is similiar to Adrian Johnston's composition for Jude.

The subwoofer remains largely inactive for the majority of this film and is nothing to write home about.

  Extras
Contract

On first glimpse, it appears that there is not much on offer here. However, the features on this DVD are an example of quality over quantity.

Feature - Jane Campion and the Portrait of A Lady: A documentary by Peter Long and Kate Ellis, this 52 minute, 45 second presentation is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 with a 4:3 screen aspect ratio. Filmed in monochrome, this feature maintains a deliberately artistic grainy appearance and is a revelation - not only in the making of Portrait of A Lady, but it also dispels the myth that filming period dramas are a glamorous affair. Some of the documentaryís most fascinating moments concern the behind-the-scenes drama of filming the scene where Isabel (Kidman) confronts Osmond (Malkovich) in a plea to let her visit her sickly cousin. It is a trying, painful scene to witness as Campion motivates Kidman into getting in touch with her character. Jane Campion and the Portrait of A Lady is not anamorphic.

Theatrical Trailer: Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 with a screen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this feature runs for 2 minutes, 23 seconds. Although exhibiting minor grain, it is of good quality and 16:9 enhanced.

  Overall  
Contract

Portrait of A Lady's plot appears to be deceptively simple when summarised in a few paragraphs. However, it is an exhausting, mentally demanding film which requires a great deal of stamina from its audience. Not only it is long, but its atmosphere of unrelenting doom and heart-rending tragedy will tend to wear down most peoplesí resolve. As always, Campionís direction is meticulous, possessing an artistic quality that is rarely seen in modern cinema - other than in other period dramas.

This film is an actorís showcase and contains some formidable performances, particularly from its two main leads - Kidman and Malkovich. Kidmanís portrayal as the unfortunate Isabel is nothing short of brilliant and certainly ranks as one of her best roles since To Die For and Moulin Rouge; the pain she generates as the abused wife in a loveless marriage is genuinely mortifying and heart-breaking. Malkovichís fine performance as the distant and alienating Osmond is yet another addition to his stable of villainous characters; his contemptuous appraisal of people as mere commodities will succeed in incensing most of the audience.

Portrait of A Lady has less in common with Jane Austen and more with Thomas Hardyís Jude the Obscure. Both of these classic literary works share the same theme - that society will not tolerate radical free-thinkers who seemingly wish to conspire to undermine it and, in an effort to protect itself, the social order will triumph in crushing any individual who attempts to oppose its regimented standards. Campionís film is not the light-hearted fare of Emma; it is a cold, oppressive film with Judeís sensibilities.

Portrait of A Lady is not suitable for everyoneís taste. If you have an aversion to high-brow art-house cinema, then this film should be avoided. However, if you have an appreciation for either Jamesí novel or Campionís cinematic style, then I would have no hesitation in recommending this title. But be warned: Portrait of A Lady is an emotionally draining experience which requires a focused attention span in order to appreciate its depth and subtleties.


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      And I quote...
    "...A beautifully sombre film, buoyed by consummate direction and a superb ensemble cast..."
    - Shaun Bennett
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Panasonic SC-HT80
    • TV:
          Panasonic TX-43P15 109cm Rear Projection
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          standard s-video
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