Isabel Archer, an American heiress and free thinker travels to Europe to find herself. She tactfully rebuffs the advances of Caspar Goodwood, another American who has followed her to England.
Jane Campion’s Piano excited people hankering after passion in the brooding Gothic romantic style. Alas, there is no comparable erotically charged thrill in this, her artful but bloodless adaptation of the Henry James classic.
Isabel Archer (Kidman) is American, sensitive and hungry for independence and experience — so men are dropping at her feet, notably an English lord (Richard E. Grant) and the persistent Yankee suitor (Viggo Mortensen). Having come into a fortune, she's also heaven-sent for Gilbert (Malkovich), an expatriate art-collector on his uppers, who ensnares her in Italy with his pretentious smarm.
Here, Malkovich proves so unappealing that Isabel's fascination with him is mystifying. But then, all the characters are presented as exasperating and humourless. The best turns are Martin Donovan as Isabel's selfless, consumptive cousin, and Hershey's enigmatic presence as conniving Madame Merle.
Long, slender and pale in her corseted, highly strung splendour, Kidman is elegant, if unable to convey the magnetism of the woman in the book. Luckily, she looks pretty when crying (because she does a lot of that) but Campion sets her in unremitting darkly lit gloom, which has the side effect of being tiring to look at. The eye craves just one bright spot some where in these manors, villas and palazzos, for relief and to take in the fancy production design.
And what on earth is the little surrealist film-in-a-film in the middle all about, or the opening credits sequence in which hippy chicks gaze into camera as female voices talk about kisses?
If meant as a signal to contemporary relevance, they fail. One doesn't care how Isabel herself ends up which leaves this fussy period drama remote, murky and interminable.