In her bold and bewitching screen adaptation of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion (The Piano) demonstrates her imaginative skills as a director and her passionate interest in the spiritual journeys of independent women. Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) is a bright, eager, alluring,a nd cerebral American woman abroad in England in the 1870s. She tells her dying uncle (John Gielgud), "I want to get a general impression of life. There's a light that has to dawn."
Thanks to the secret intervention of Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan), an admiring cousin with consumption, she acquires a fortune and the freedom to explore the wide world. However, he innocence and ambition trip Isabel up as she is led into marrige with an American dilettante, Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), by Madame Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey), a woman she greatly respects. Her descent into loneliness and lovelessness is tragic given the affections of her cousin, the ardent yearning of Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), and the persistent claims of love presented by an American suitor, Casper Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen).
When Isabel squares off against her manipulative husband, she enters new territory. The final mysteries and mesmerizing scenes in The Portrait of a Lady convey the distinctive, platonic nature of her love. Similar to Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, this moody film of sunlight and shadow demands patience and focused attention to the small details which speak volumes about love and loss.