Portrait of a Lady - From Novel to Film
Jane Campion's most recent film, Portrait of a Lady (1996), offers a distinct departure from her previous work, The Piano (1993), with which some critics have found fault. In her 1998 article, for example, while commending Campion for introducing two characters able to renounce the gender warfare that characterizes Western culture, Diane Long Hoeveler criticizes Campion for celebrating marriage, the idea that women cannot survive without a man at the center of their lives (Hoeveler 110, 114). Second, she asserts that while Campion toys with feminist issues and images, Piano is Aromantic and escapist, with Ada's decision to be reborn with Baines a step hardly worthy of the serious feminist issues that Campion seems to be raising in the film (Hoeveler 114). Finally, she points out that Campion is heavily indebted to a 1920s work, The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander. Partly as a consequence of not acknowledging this debt, the film has conflicting sources, Campion's rather permissive twentieth century script about adultery, superimposed on Mander's original, in which the Victorian heroine is not united sexually with her lover until after her husband's death. Enacting a basically contemporary drama in anachronistic costumes and setting, Hoeveler says the film contains gaps, ...fissures we sense while viewing it (Hoeveler 114). For example, how likely is it, she asks, that an 1850s heroine would conduct an adulterous affair? In (Re)Visioning the Gothic (1998), Cyndy Hendershot echoes this view, calling Baines, the film's nontraditional male (Harvey Keitel), a deus ex machina, a fairy-tale character, an imaginary resolution to two real problems, on the one hand the castration of the male by colonialism and on the other the decapitation of a female who fails to sustain a masculine sense of wholeness (Hendershot 98, 102).
As if to respond to these very charges, in her newest movie, Portrait of a Lady, Campion freely acknowledges her debt to Henry James' novel. She also engages feminist issues without resorting to fantasy or romanticism or to the perhaps religious view that struggle or lack are preconditions for the new order of heterosexual love that Ada (played by Holly Hunter) and Baines finally enjoy in The Piano. Instead, Portrait of a Lady places heterosexual love within a historical context and offers an outcome which, while it may be controversial, can scarcely be counted as either unconvincing or escapist.
How different is Campion's film from the novel? In answering this question, I shall argue that in taking the essence of James' work and translating it into terms suitable for a modern audience, Campion's film is more faithful to James than he was to himself. To be sure, both novel and film alike flout the expectations of the audience, who would prefer the heroine, Isabel Archer (played by Nicole Kidder), to marry almost anybody other than the man she does and...