Nicole Kidman: The Portrait of a Lady | Eyes Wide Shut | Dogville

Film Actresses & Global Classics


In this series I offer my reflections on actresses and their most compelling performances in (mostly) classics of global cinema.


Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady

Isabel Archer, the heroine of The Portrait of a Lady, is a young woman of surface elegance and interior turmoil. As a character, she challenges the actress to plumb her depths even as she maintains her surface composure. In accepting this challenge, Nicole Kidman delivers what is for me her finest screen performance. How to describe it? If you allow me a conceit, by analogy with a piece of music: Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet.  If you listen to it, this is what you’ll hear: the shadowy silence of a ghostly waltz, the dactylic rhythm of fortissimo chords; the bright pluck of pizzicato, the brutal lyricism of sustained bass notes; the spectral timbre of high tessitura, a dark cello beneath a singing violin. A distillation of subtleties, by turns elegiac and agitated; a melodic figure that crescendos but remains incomplete. And in the end, an intermingling of beauty and sorrow, a stoic farewell… Yes, if she is to do justice to Henry James’ heroine, this is the quartet the actress is called upon to play: not a solo sonata for violin or piano, but an ensemble of two violins, viola and cello. In playing Isabel Archer, Nicole Kidman not only strikes all the right notes on the four instruments, but voices each in varied rhythms, taking our breath away.

Nicole Kidman, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

Nicole Kidman, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

The challenge in playing Isabel Archer, then, is to simultaneously show the placidity of her surface elegance (what James calls her ‘mask’) and the agitation of her inner turmoil, and to dose each state to the precise degree required by the dramatic moment. As Isabel ‘affronts’ her destiny (as James puts it), the actress has to deploy her body/voice on different fronts at once, using, as it were, counterpoint and dissonance to disrupt the surface melody (hence my metaphorical quartet). More than most roles, Isabel Archer requires the actress to constantly play both horizontally (melody, counterpoint) and vertically (harmony, dissonance). Jane Campion’s close-ups of Nicole Kidman’s face allow us to appreciate how brilliantly the actress achieves this objective. Even in long shot, corseted in her flowing gowns, Kidman conveys Isabel’s ambivalence, her state of permanent tension. Thanks to the cine-camera, we can measure the weight of a tear drop, gauge the heave of a suppressed sigh. The semiotics of Portrait of a Lady abounds in such signs: all the more amazing, then, that Kidman ‘carries’ the entire film using, for the most part, only such subtleties.

Isabel Archer fervently wants to be happy, yet, unbeknownst to her, she has armed herself against that possibility. All her troubles stem from this self-sabotage. She refuses the love of Caspar Goodwood because she’s afraid of how his erotic power might arouse hers; she refuses Lord Warburton’s hand in marriage because accepting it would interfere with her plans for ‘getting a general impression of life’ first. She’s in love with Ralph Touchett but ends up marrying Gilbert Osmond, a ‘sterile dilettante’, instead (only with Ralph on his deathbed does she realize this). And that is when she arrives at a self-understanding that, we presume, will free her from her self-sabotage. The film ends with Isabel on a threshold. Of happiness? Jane Campion, like Henry James, opts for the ‘love of the question mark’ (Europe) over any answer (America).

Nicole Kidman, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

Nicole Kidman & Viggo Mortensen, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

Isabel’s problem can be simply stated: she’s afraid of the dark. The darkness inside herself. ‘We are only alive because we desire, and yet in our desiring we are obscure to ourselves’ (Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery [London: Faber & Faber, 1999, p. 107]). Indeed, Isabel is afraid of what she might find if she descends into the depths of her heart. She’s afraid it might shatter her armour. And so, doggedly pursuing happiness, she remains immune to surprise—and so remains unhappy. Indeed, unable to risk spontaneity, she deprives herself of any opportunity to discover that happiness only occurs by enchantment. She entertains the fantasy of knowing what she wants, but ‘knowing what one wants is a form of despair … a form of terrorism of oneself and of others’ (Adam Phillips, Side Effects [London: Penguin Books, 2006, pp. 166/171]). As Ralph advises her: ‘Don’t ask yourself so much whether this or that is good for you. Live as you like best, and your character will take care of itself’. At the end of her journey, at the end of the film, Isabel is ready to assume ‘the unknowingness of desiring’. In other words, she is ready to give herself a chance to discover happiness—not wilfully, but by accident.

The film doesn’t give us sufficient ‘life facts’ for a detailed understanding of Isabel’s psychology: for that we have to read the novel. Yet, for anyone with even an elementary understanding of femininity, we can infer what’s going on behind Isabel’s surface elegance. Her sexual repression is what Jane Campion plays up, but that’s but the tip of the iceberg. Looking more deeply, we see that Mrs. Touchett has provided us with a key fact: Isabel has ‘neither mother nor father’. Now, observing how she responds to Osmond’s seducing her, observing the dynamics of their marriage, it quickly becomes clear that Isabel has opted to marry a ‘father’, a man who wants her to take up the position of a child, who wants to ‘bring her up’, to mould her according to his own precepts. In other words, he wants another Pansy, another daughter, but one over whom his power, unrestrained by the incest taboo, would be absolute.

John Malkovich, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

John Malkovich & Nicole Kidman, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

Why does Isabel fall into the trap? Why does she who so proudly declared ‘It’s not my fate to give up?’ surrender to a tyrant? Precisely because Osmond corresponds to her fantasy of a father, to a primitive ideal of which she is unaware. Had she been willing to enter into a relationship with Goodwood or Warburton, she’d have had a chance to become aware of her fantasy and to loosen its grip on her; instead, by refusing frank relationship, but affirming her proud isolation, she foreclosed this possibility. Osmond, precisely because he does not desire Isabel, is the only man in her life who does not fall under her ‘spell’. All the others, fooled by their own desire, fail to see that her wilful ‘independence’ is but a screen for her fear of making herself vulnerable, that her ‘mystery’ is a cipher for the darkness inside her. If Osmond’s fearless kiss (in the parasol scene) aroused her sexual excitement and broke a barrier, it was but one element in his deciphering of her ‘code’: unlocking it, he locked her into marriage and obtained her money. ‘I can’t escape my fate’, headstrong Isabel, out of touch with her heart, had told Ralph: had she been more in touch with her heart, her marriage with Osmond would not have been her fate.

Why does Isabel fall under the spell of Madame Merle? Why does she say to her, ‘To me, you’re  a vivid image of success’? Again, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that, not having a mother, Isabel is desperate for some positive identification with femininity. This desperation explains why it takes her so long to discover Madame Merle’s duplicity. As for acceptance of maternity, neither Madame Merle nor Mrs. Touchett offer any model: quite the contrary. It is strangely appropriate, then, that Isabel mourns her dead child by caressing a little marble hand: her own mother is a ‘stone’ of impossible mourning inside her. All this helps us understand why Isabel’s repudiation of femininity is so acute, making her relationships with men so problematic and her surrender to Osmond’s authority so cruelly ironic.

Nicole Kidman, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

Nicole Kidman & Martin Donovan, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

At the end of the film Isabel is a changed woman. We sense she’s understood that smartness is no substitute for wisdom, that avoiding intimacy only serves to fossilize one’s fears, and that rejecting convention is easier than ridding oneself of inhibition. Nicole Kidman, in enacting this journey—Isabel’s journey from ‘affronting her destiny’ to confronting her demons—deploys with great intelligence and instinctive justesse her body/voice, and in so doing offers us one of the finest performances ever captured on screen.

Nicole Kidman and her mirror reflection: Isabel Archer is ambivalent.


Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan)

Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich)

Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant)

Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen)

Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery

Jane Campion, The Portrait of a Lady, DVD

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2019 | All rights reserved