by Cathleen Myers
This is the winner of PEERS’ annual Barry Lyndon Award for the Prettiest Costume Movie of the Year with No Discernible Plot. After the touching beauty of "The Piano," we expected more from Director Jane Campion. What we get here is lots of visual beauty: The 1870’s costumes are elegant and authentic, the music - mostly by Schubert - is ravishing (and we even forgive Campion for the obvious symbolism of using Schubert’s "Death and the Maiden."), the interiors of Osmond’s newly decorated (with Isabel’s money) Palazzo are impressive and the ball scene is a whirl of color and excitement - made slightly sinister by glimpses of fainting debutantes dropping like flies from vertigo. It’s so gorgeous that we almost forgive the silly Hollywood choreography (the Fledermaus quadrille is danced as an American style contra dance with American style courtesy turns never used in a European ballroom; and, absurdly, all the waltzers use exactly the same variations). After the impeccable choreography (by Elizabeth Aldrich) in The Age of Innocence, this was a let-down!
But why does the beautiful, liberated American heiress Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) - after vowing to explore life and its mysteries - marry the arch cad-and-bounder Gilbert Osmond? And why does she suddenly discovers that her consumptive cousin Ralph Touchett (Marin Donovan) is her One True Love and Soulmate? And why does Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortenson), who in the film has nothing to recommend him but his Tom Cruise-good looks, think he’s Isabel’s Real Chance for happiness? And why on earth does Isabel make her final decision?
Much of Laura Jones’ screenplay, unfortunately, depends on a prior knowledge of Henry James’ novel, especially for understanding motivations. And would anyone in the cinema audience who had NOT read James’ book understand what Pansy’s feckless little suitor means when he tells Isabel, in passing, that he’ll sell his bibelots - they’ll bring him about $50,000? Did anyone even CATCH that throw-away line? In Ms. Jones’ script, no one even mentions that he’s a collector!
On the plus side, while the men are mostly one-dimensional (cad, playboy, invalid, banker), the female characters are impressive: Miss Kidman does a nice job of letting her spunky girl-Isabel grow up and her progress is mirrored by her step- daughter Pansy’s (Valentina Cervi) transition from convent-bred schoolgirl to dazzling debutante to anguished young woman torn between love and duty. Barbara Hershey’s Madame Merle - the treacherous sophisticate who almost makes us believe she’s sorry for her betrayal of Isabel - has been justly admired. But just what does Madame Merle see in Osborne?
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