Portrait of a Lady: About The Story

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Director Jane Campion first read Henry James' novel THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY many years ago and considers it one of her favorites. Her desire to adapt the work for the screen is the result of her "ambition to combine what I love about this great novel with the movie public," thus forging a bond between two artistic areas, cinema and literature, that are of the utmost importance to her.

Her adaptation of the novel, this "melodrama with a mysterious and compelling quality," written by screenwriter Laura Jones, has taken the characters and dialogue of the novel and !eft behind what Campion considers what many people find difficult about Henry James' work, namely his long repetition and character analysis. Campion thinks that the story is "bold, modern and provocative" enough to suit her style and senses a particular bond, as many women do, with the heroine, Isabel Archer.

The adaptation itself took several years to complete and marks a departure from Campion's previous film, "The Piano" despite its period setting. Campion, "dying for dialogue" after the relative silence of "The Piano" was eager to work on a movie with intense dramatic dialogue scenes. She considers THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY to be "the hardest thing I've ever done," with "the tension of a major scene every day."

Nevertheless, Campion feels that she was able to put more of herself into THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY than into her previous literary adaptation, "An Angel At My Table," where the personality of author Janet Frame marked the film. With James, Campion felt herself freer to tackle the story in a "deep, bold, playful way perfectly and felt so free with it, so invited to be free."

The novel, as is typical of its times, can be seen as a kind of manual of everyday life, dealing with such major issues as morality, love, death, birth, marriage and divorce as it contrasts innocence and wisdom, dark and light, Europe and America. Campion views it as a fairy tale with Osmond representing the underworld into which Madame Merle leads Isabel, who escapes at the end.

The shoot was a "long, hard journey compared to 'The Piano,"' with the production moving locations ten times in all, between England and Italy. The budget, fairly generous for an adaptation of a novel of this kind, allowed the director to take the necessary time in preparation and to shoot in the places described in the novel, such as the Coliseum in Rome, magnificent palazzi and gardens in Lucca, and locations in Florence and Salisbury in England. The shoot spanned two seasons, winter
and summer, and ranged from snow to grassy lawns. Campion considered such logistical back-up necessary in the telling of this powerful journey, in order to treat James' work justly. She praises the work of the art and production departments for their role in helping her bring James' story to the screen in its full scope.

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