It's typical period fare, but thanks to some fine performances and a subtle directorial hand, The Portrait of a Lady ranks higher than many of its bodice-ripping counterparts.
Strong female characters are a real standout in this tale of tactical marriage and the search for a soul mate. In particular Nicole Kidman leads the cast with an impressive turn as Isabel Archer, a wealthy heiress looking for love. Similarly Barbara Hershey delivers her sole Oscar nominated performance as Madame Merle. The genius of her performance is not revealed until well into the second half of the film, when her character's true colours are revealed and Hershey proves entirely worthy of the acclaim she received.
A strong male ensemble is also worth mentioning. Young Christian Bale continues to rise through the ranks from child star to serious actor with a decent showing, while the likes of Richard E. Grant and Viggo Mortensen flesh out the sideline characters admirably. However it is John Malkovich who shines brightest as Gilbert Osmond, a rather heartless character who seduces Isabel into marrying him. Malkovich remains as present as ever in his performance but it's for that reason that so many people love him. Similar roles in Dangerous Liaisons and Man In The Iron Mask have shown that his unique style translates well to period pieces, so it's not a surprise that his familiar routine works well this time too.
Director Jane Campion deals commendably with the material, capturing a sexual tension that runs throughout the film and only comes to the fore on specific occasions. Her handling of the underlying gender themes is also estimable as she keeps it all bubbling under, never allowing it to overshadow the characters themselves. However there are some clear pacing issues that a firmer hand in the editing room could have helped, as the film does drag terribly at times, and at 144 minutes it has a tendency to feel a little repetitive.
Overall it's a decent showing for the period genre, with sumptuous costumes and prickly dialogue, but if you're not a fan already there's really nothing here that's going to convert you.