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Feature


Isabel Archer (Kidman) is a young woman of daring independence and equally fierce desires. her headstrong innocence is no match, however, for the manipulations of her duplicitous friend Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey) and the devious Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich). (From the Shout Factory synopsis)

 Portrait of a Lady, The
I'm a fan of the Jane Campion films I've seen. I've sidestepped her more critically panned movies like In the Cut and Holy Smoke, but the films I have seen showcase a delicacy to her directorial style and the way she portrays her characters that many period pieces and biopics fail to obtain. Her tender treatment goes a long way to endure you to the characters and their struggles. I'd argue that her 2009 film Bright Star was one of the most underrated films of that year. I can't remember the last time I was so stirred by a period piece; much less one about a poet. Campions sensitive direction impressed me greatly, so when an opportunity arose to review one of her less adored films, The Portrait of a Lady, I was curious to see it. I haven't ready the Henry James novel (and I'm sure I never will), so I can't comment on how accurately the film captures its tone and story.

Though the film is a period piece, the opening titles of the film feature a lot of modern women, filmed in black and white and staring earnestly into the camera. Aside from being unusual, I could not fathom the purpose behind it and it resembled an awkward television PSA. Thankfully this forced modern touch was the only one of its kind, and after the opening titles the movie moves on to tell the story of Isabel. You've seen her character before. She's that young girl with an independent fiery will. Men are falling at her feet with proposals of marriage, but she isn't ready to settle down, despite the expectations of everyone around her. It's a tired story, and for the first half or so of the 144-minute runtime, Campion does very little to bring it to life. The set dressings are stunning, and the costumes are worth a second glance, but Campion's camera often lies still; blandly capturing the languid exchanges of dialogue (with some occasional, awkwardly inserted canted angles). In other words, it is so boring.

 Portrait of a Lady, The
Things liven up in the latter half of the film when Isabel settles down and marries, only to soon find out that her entire marriage was a ploy to steal her wealth. Nuanced performances from John Malkovich and Barbara Hershey make for some electric scenes, but these moments are way too few and far between. I did enjoy seeing young lovelorn versions of Christian Bale and Viggo Mortensen (who sounds nothing like he does now). Where Portrait of a Lady shines most is when it breaks free from its dull storytelling and lets the viewer get a glimpse into Isabel's mind. There is a fantasy sequence early on where she imagines herself being sexually ravished by her suitors. Though tastefully done, it reportedly caused some controversy around the time of the film's release. It was one of the few moments when the film truly broke formula and took an interesting approach to its characters. There is a surreal dream sequence later on that was equally as intriguing. Had the implications and dark side of these sequences amounted to more in the scheme of things, The Portrait of a Lady would have been much more engaging.

 Portrait of a Lady, The

Video


This is the first Blu-ray I've had a chance to see from Shout Factory, and the results of this 1080p transfer are mixed. Those who are sensitive to DNR (that's me) will notice what seems to be a moderate amount of it right off the bat. The picture is suspiciously free of any fine grain at times, and small details are inconsistent and blurry as a result. Just look at how poorly defined the veil is in the screen cap above this section. Though the noise reduction can be maddening on inspection, the film does look much better in motion than it does in these screen caps. There is still some amount of film grain, but after the post-processing it has a clumpy appearance to it. The end effect closely resembles the artificial grain appearance that certain Blue Underground releases have shown. Bright lights consistently encroach on foreground objects and characters with an unattractive shimmer, but this mostly appears to be a stylistic choice. One highlight of the image is the colors, which look especially rich. Contrast seems correct, though this was my first viewing so I don't have much to go on. Darker scenes look much better without the encroaching brights, and the deep blacks conceal some of the spottiness. Check out the lively green interior in the last screen cap. All complaints aside, this is the best the film is likely to look for some time.

Audio


Curiously, the back of the box for The Portrait of a Lady only lists a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, but the disc contains and defaults to a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The audio track shows it age, having almost no dynamic qualities and a generally flat sound. The film is a big production, but nearly every scene is people talking. Dialogue is perfectly easy to make out, but the track rarely has any spatial effects as a result. I heard maybe two instances of activity in the rear channels, and it was just ambient noise in an outdoor scene. There really isn't much else to say about this particular mix. It gets the job done, but there is nothing noteworthy about it.

 Portrait of a Lady, The

Extras


Aside from a trailer, the only feature is Portrait: Jane Campion and The Portrait of a Lady Documentary (HD, 55:01). Though it is encoded in HD, it is not an HD presentation at all. It is a full frame documentary that appears to be ported over from an old DVD release. Like the film it covers, this hour-long documentary is pretty boring and tedious. The majority of the hour is spent watching footage of Campion talking with the actors on set. There are brief moments of narration and some interview snippets with the actors, but more often than not the camera just plays fly on the wall to the shooting process. If you're curious to see Campion's process, here's your chance. I found that the lack of variety made for a slow

 Portrait of a Lady, The

Overall


The Portrait of a Lady lives up to its mediocre reputation. With the exception of a couple interesting fantasy sequences, Campion plays it too safe and straightforward, making for a slog of an experience. Malkovich and Hershey put in great performances, but its not enough to bring the picture to life. This Blu-ray release is generally strong in the video department, but does show some distracting marks of post-processing. The audio presentation is serviceable, and there is one long special feature that I personally found tedious.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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