"I Am Isabel, You Know?": The Antipodean Framing of Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady





Jane Campion, Antipodean femininity, woman and nation

How to Cite

Cooper, A. (2008). "I Am Isabel, You Know?": The Antipodean Framing of Jane Campion’s <i>Portrait of a Lady</i>. M/C Journal, 11(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.99
Vol. 11 No. 5 (2008): country
Published 2008-10-22

... I am Isabel, you know, and I think that every woman on this film thinks the same thing, that story touches us all.

...  coming from Australia or New Zealand now makes one more like Americans going to Europe were then ...



If, as Jacqueline Rose argues, the unconscious dreams of nations have purpose and effect in the world, how can we approach an understanding of ourselves as national subjects–as creatures of these dreams? We trail behind us the traces of nationhood in what we make and do and choose and say, performing the productive historical fictions of origin and attachment to place and nation and shared past. These traces are not straightforward nor necessarily deliberate, nor even especially obedient to geography. How otherwise could Isabel Archer’s story, a ‘Northern’ woman’s story–an appropriate story, certainly, for the genres of heritage cinema and the woman’s film–start to look a bit Antipodean?

Jane Campion’s first film not to be set in the Antipodes was her adaptation of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996). This might on first glance look as though, with the success of The Piano (1993) behind her, established as an auteur, and at last backed by a very substantial budget, Campion was leaving behind her local affiliations and heading into the more prestigious territory of international cinema. The contention of this article is that despite its New York heroine and its English and Italian settings, the film has a distinct Antipodean framing and inflection which turns Campion’s adaptation of James’s story into appropriation. To trace this inflection is to detect a repositioning of the configuration of ‘woman’ and ‘nation’ between novel and film.

I use ‘Antipodean’ here to describe the settler societies of predominantly British origin in Australasia, which although they have defined themselves sometimes against, sometimes in recognition of or affiliation with indigenous populations, have also–and this is my central concern in this article–defined themselves increasingly in opposition to Britain and Europe. As Meaghan Morris observes, settler identity has always been an uneasy matter for societies such as Australia and New Zealand: ‘Dubiously postcolonial, prematurely postmodern, constitutively multicultural but still predominantly white, we oscillate historically between identities as colonizer and colonized’ (Morris 471). (In the discussion that follows the most frequent and visible Antipodean traces are Australian, but there is enough here of a New Zealand national narrative to warrant using the broader term. As I explain elsewhere, Campion also engages with the differences between these societies (Cooper)). 

Australians and New Zealanders of British descent, looking back at Britain, often identify class, opportunity and freedom as axes of differentiation. Around the time Campion was beginning work on Portrait, she delineated her unflattering sense of these differences in an interview:

All my egalitarian spirit really sent me into a fury every time I heard those sort of dandy voices with nooooo ability to feel emotional or feel for anybody else. It was only recently that I can hear that kind of voice and suddenly recognize it not so much as my enemy as a sort of weird antiquated cultural design. What’s most sad is the resignation amongst English people about their opportunities in life. Where they begin is where they end. We colonials have a different spirit-–like anybody can have a go. (Wexman 171)

The specific histories of these settler societies have left their traces not only in narratives of national identities but in the gender formations of those identities. Both societies bore the signs of frontier histories in the emergence of distinctive forms of masculinism with strong homosocial dimensions (and histories of gender in Australasia have tended to concentrate on masculine culture as distinctively Australasian (Phillips; Lake; Dalziel)). In the historiography on women, the idea that both countries also understood themselves as ‘advanced’ and as ‘not-like-Britain’ in the place accorded to women has been something of a minor strain (but see Dalziel; Grimshaw; Lake; Roe). Nevertheless, a strong definition of femininity was borne out in the early achievement of women’s suffrage in both countries, and has remained as a reference-point of female prominence, particularly in New Zealand’s conception of itself as a social laboratory. The configuration of ‘woman’ and ‘nation’ in these societies has therefore functioned primarily to mark not tradition but change and advancement. Jill Roe points out that “a key component of nineteenth-century Australian nationalism was the belief in the emergence of a superior Australian type, female as well as male. The Australian girl was admired for her independence” (Roe 31). In 1869 Mary Müller asserted that “[New Zealand] women are brave and strong, with [...] self-reliance, courage, and freedom from conventionalities” (cited in Dalziel 89).

The sense that Australian and New Zealand women and these societies in general may have had of being adventurous and advanced in comparison with Old World societies was, however, cross-cut by lines of continuity and cultural identification. One of these was the ongoing consumption of Old World culture. Until film and more particularly television took up much of the space that the novel had once occupied, the consumption of narrative fiction played a key role in the processes of identity formation for educated young women in Western countries, particularly those who, like Campion, grew up in families associated with high-cultural arts. Edward Said has demonstrated the particular function of English narrative fiction in facilitating the compliance of colonised populations, and his argument might be extended to explore the operations of canonical literature in settler societies–those societies both colonised and colonising (so the influence of the Brontes in The Piano, which Campion has acknowledged, might repay further attention). The novel in question here, however, belongs to the American canon, which situates it somewhat differently. Isabel Archer (first discovered dutifully reading a book on German thought) follows Henry James’s own path from American periphery to European centre and, like Said’s cultural consumers, is seduced and overcome by Old World culture rather than by more overt forms of power. The Portrait of a Lady is not one-sided in its critique of the Old World (witness the treatment of American lady journalist Henrietta Stackpole, arriving to ‘do’ the English), but it does ‘answer back’ to England and Europe, confronting Old World imperialism with the moral authority of truth and innocence. In the 1970s, while Austen and the Brontes were re-read by second-wave feminist criticism across the English-speaking world, Portrait offered a conjuncture of femininity and nation more appropriable to an Antipodean reader.  Nevertheless, by the time Jane Campion read it, engaging with it as a 20-year-old and feeling “so Isabel-Archerish,” and by the time she made the film twenty years later, the United States had shed its identity as former colony and become a major power, had long since acquired its own fictional canon, with James one of its leading figures, and–something surely not lost on anyone involved with more marginal film industries–now dominated international film production.

In adapting Portrait, Campion returned to a narrative which she had put to the service of her own youthful identity-formation. But now she made it her own: “I realized, while rereading the novel, that we weren’t going to shoot Portrait of a Lady, but simply the story of Portrait of a Lady interpreted by me” (Wexman 178). Several kinds of change are evident in the adaptation. Campion made eroticism a more explicit problem, as well as a pleasure, for Isabel (in this she shadowed James’s own revisions for the New York edition); and she sided with the women more than James did, taking most of the satire out of Henrietta and the Countess Gemini, and deepening Madame Merle’s tragedy and Gilbert Osmond’s villainy. This article makes the case that one means of siding with Isabel herself was to introduce an Antipodean legacy into her story–a gesture that only makes sense if we understand the importance of this character to Jane Campion.

I. Three Young Women


Through the travels and travails of Isabel Archer, a young woman who leaves Albany, New York, and travels to England and Europe, Henry James marked out a moral and intellectual geography which engaged him for much of his career. Isabel embodies the characteristics of her country as it might have been understood a century ago: she is young, vital, open and independent. Her journeys across national borders situate her against England and then Italy; and against English people, and expatriate Americans living in Italy. Suddenly made rich by an inheritance (of English money), she is taken in by the subtle Florentine American Gilbert Osmond, who skilfully conceals both his contempt for her modernity and his respect for her money. Her frankness and naivete are no match for his seductive duplicity and that of his ex-lover Madame Merle, another ‘European’ American, and thus Isabel, in the novel’s terrible irony, is betrayed by her generous English legacy into a Machiavellian web of unhappiness which curtails the freedom of a young, independent American woman.

The narratives of the personal and the feminine are carefully delineated, in this novel, across ‘country’. In the opening chapter Isabel is first characterised, in her aunt’s enigmatic telegram from America, as “quite independent” (24). That phrase alone, puzzled over by English men, describes her until her arrival. As the complexities of the novel unfold, the forms of her independence–intellectual, economic and moral–move into and out of alignment with each other. Independence is as much a national and political condition as a personal trait, set against the restrictions, dependencies and various kinds of incapacity for action of the English, European, and Europeanised, characters, who similarly perform their affiliations to country.

In fact, in the novel’s moral geography countries confront each other wherever characters do. England (Ralph, and to some extent Lord Warburton) is benign, possessed of the wealth of inheritance but marked by the past and by lassitude. The energy in the English setting is provided by the expatriate Americans, Mr and Mrs Touchett, but they are old and dying. Italy is linked, as it had been for so long by the English gaze, to history, beauty, and deceit, although it is Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle, the Italian-influenced Americans–disloyal even to their own identities–who are actually corrupt. The shift within Italy from Florence to Rome which follows Isabel’s marriage to Osmond also signifies a moral trajectory. In Rome Osmond’s love of wealth is displayed as a degenerate passion, and the ruins of Isabel’s aspirations find an appropriate setting. In the end, ‘country’ is Isabel’s downfall: her tragedy comes from learning her geography too late.


Between the first and second editions of Isabel Archer’s flight from obscurity in upstate New York, the piano-playing, fiction-writing daughter of a rural New South Wales farming family got sick of milking cows and flushing her father out of the pub. Sybylla Melvyn was feminist novelist Miles Franklin’s comic, self-deflating alter ego, a riposte to the masculinist cultural nationalism of 1890s Australia, but cast in the mould of that nationalism, combining intelligence, physical vigour and independence with female larrikinism. In My Brilliant Career (1901) Sybylla falls in love with wealthy station-owner Harry Beecham but aware that pursuing her artistic dreams means dispensing with marriage, turns him down, writes her novel, and fixes her eyes on the metropolis.

Like Isabel Archer, Sybylla was ripe for revival in the era of second-wave feminism. Marriage was once again up for review, male cultural nationalists needed another stirring-up, and many a young Antipodean was setting out to pursue dreams in a more sophisticated metropolitan milieu, which was–still–somewhere else. Gillian Armstrong’s 1979 film adaptation of My Brilliant Career was a major event in Antipodean cinema. As Robson and Zalcock have argued, “Sybylla [...] represents the starting point, prototype and role model for many of the strong female representations that were to follow” (10). When the film came out Jane Campion was a student in Sydney:

I think particularly seeing Gill Armstrong make My Brilliant Career, it was just like “God they’re going to let girls do it too” [...] we all know women make movies now but at that time really there was hardly anyone, especially in Australia, nobody, and it was rumoured that the guys gave you such a hard time that it would never be worthwhile [...] just seeing that they were going to let Gill do it gave me the idea, it just opened up that door in my mind that maybe it would be possible for me too. (The Grass is Greener)


Jane Campion first read The Portrait of a Lady at “around 20, when I devoured that type of literature” (Wexman 177). Campion has said that at that time she felt

so Isabel-Archerish. I think that coming from Australia or New Zealand now makes one more like Americans going to Europe were then than Americans going to Europe are now. They’re much more sophisticated, whereas we have more of a colonial attitude about ourselves, a more can-do, anything’s-possible attitude. I felt so much like Isabel as a young woman, a sense of having extraordinary potential without knowing what the hell to do with it. (Wexman, 162)

Like many a young New Zealander in the 1970s, Campion wrestled with the constraints of a small society and (Isabel Archer-like) headed for Europe. At twenty-one, she began art school in Venice: “I passed the winter there profoundly depressed by the cold, the humidity, the imprisonment, and also my terrible loneliness since I didn’t know anyone. It was my first existential experience of isolation” (Wexman 179). She abandoned her study and left. England she found similarly alien: “I couldn’t take the look of the place or the style of friendship. I need more intimacy from people than is considered O.K. there, and I felt that my personality and my enthusiasms weren’t understood. I had to put a big lid on myself” (Wexman 156). She went back to the Antipodes, not back to New Zealand but to cosmopolitan Sydney, and studied art and then film. Her entry into film-making coincided with a particularly supportive period for Australian women film-makers. Her first feature, the thoroughly Australian Sweetie (1989), was nominated for the Palme d’Or in Cannes, sending her back to Europe on a wave of success. But when it was shown, many in the Cannes audiences booed it, and critics told her it was shocking and repulsive, replaying her first round of European experience with a second at least as distressing. An Angel at My Table (1990) was shown to acclaim at the Venice festival in 1990, and Oscars and the Palme d’Or followed for The Piano (1993), but Europe seems to have remained a site of adversity overcome.

These narratives of young women charting courses, both between countries and through the momentous changes in gender that marked the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries, constitute part of the genealogy of Campion’s reading of Isabel Archer (although it should not be forgotten that there were many other Antipodeans involved in the making of the film: actor Nicole Kidman, writer Laura Jones, designer Janet Patterson, and cinematographer and bloke Stuart Dryburgh, to name only the most prominent). The next section addresses the Antipodean framing of Campion’s Portrait, and what it might signify.

II. Antipodean Framing

Australian Girls, and Kissing

‘Contemporary’ and ‘Antipodean’ intertwine in Campion’s re-reading of Portrait. Before the opening credits begin and before there is anything except black screen to see, the voices of young Australian women are talking about kissing. The credits begin, the voices stop, and music and image begin:  young women–the same young women, it seems–dance, lie and sit, alone and together, among trees. Then an open hand, with the film’s title inscribed on a finger, points us to the first shot of the events that we expect to see. Most critics observe Campion’s insistence on connecting the film to the 1990s in this disorienting credit sequence, but fewer (McHugh; Walton; Francke) note that she commits a geographical as well as a temporal anachronism. Kathleen McHugh observes that these young women constitute the ‘portal’ through which Campion views Portrait of a Lady, marking it as her vision. (Contributors to the Internet Movie Data Base message board, entertainingly, assume that these voices are all Kidman’s, and wonder why her accent changes from Australian to American.) Campion herself, in describing this introduction, initially prioritises the contemporary, but her statement goes on to suggest that the contemporary is something to be signified by young Australian women:

The decision was taken very early on to have that introduction, which serves as a link to our era. [...] I had the idea of gathering all the lively, intelligent young women that I had met in Australia during the preparation of the film and asking them to speak off the cuff of their aspirations and their sentimental experiences. (Wexman 180)


A head-shot of Nicole Kidman as Isabel, eyes darting anxiously, hair pinned up in a late Victorian style, takes us to territory more recognisable as heritage cinema. But there’s a bit of Antipodean seeping in here too. Nicole Kidman can speak American but she is also Australian. In this frame her hair is her most striking physical feature: curling red against bright greenery, it stands out in a frizz around her head. Campion has said the curly hair was Kidman’s idea, because she wore it like that as a girl and didn’t like it and it would signify Isabel’s lack of interest in her beauty (Wexman, 187); but she has also said that the inspiration for the film came while she was at the hairdresser, having ‘a colour job’ (Portrait: Jane Campion and The Portrait of a Lady). Whatever its provenance, this hair has an ancestry. For Campion fans, Janet Frame’s startling mop in An Angel at My Table will come to mind. Australians though may recognise its similarity to Judy Davis’s hair in the film adaptation of My Brilliant Career, mimicking both the tight red curls and the divided style, and that it makes Kidman resemble Davis as Sybylla Melvyn in that film. As it does in Angel and The Piano, hair operates as a precise signifier in Portrait. The barely-contained red curls disrupt the constraint of Isabel’s Victorian clothing until the last scene before her marriage. They then abruptly disappear to be replaced by elaborate braids coiled and confined at the back of her head, like the style worn by Madame Merle (similarly entrapped in Osmond’s web), and do not return until Isabel flouts Osmond’s authority and travels to her dying cousin in England. In the first of the scenes following this rift in her marriage, she visits her stepdaughter Pansy, and asks her to leave with her– an offer of rescue. “I have learned that I must not displease papa,” says Pansy, sleekly coiffed, whose papa has locked her in a convent as punishment for displeasing him, but a glimpse of red frizz can be seen behind Isabel’s hat. By the time she gets to London, more red curls are escaping. At her cousin’s house, off comes the hat and the viewer looks, with Isabel herself, full in the mirror. Sybylla Melvyn’s hair is back, and it is still there at the close of the film when Campion makes a change to the final action of James’s version.


As many have noted, Campion and writer Laura Jones dispensed with all the introductory material in the novel which deals with Isabel before her first arrival in England. If I can rewind a little, I’d like to suggest that part of what is effected in the re-cast opening framework is a sly infiltration–even a replacement–of an American experience-in-England with an Antipodean one. A chain of associations links ‘Australian’/‘Antipodean’ through from the opening voices to the opening scenes, so that an Antipodean line runs through Isabel’s intrusion into the afternoon tea at Gardencourt. The sound of young Australian women’s voices behind the names of a mostly American cast leads into the young and (by association with the voices) ‘Australian’ women, encircling the name of the Antipodean director, then standing among trees behind the credits, along the hand with the title inscribed on it, pointing on to the opening head-shot of a young Australian woman, Nicole Kidman, amongst the green of the tree, looking so much like another young Australian woman, Judy Davis, playing yet another, Sybylla Melvyn. After Lord Warburton has spoken to her she rushes away from him through a tunnel of trees (as Sybylla Melvyn ran, in a game, beneath a tunnel of trees away from Harry Beecham) and as she rushes a wind blows up (not much like the wind that blows up in the opening of My Brilliant Career, but a wind nevertheless).

Parasols, and Kissing

The attraction–and the implicit danger–of kissing in this film is marked out for attention as soon as we hear those young Australian women speaking to a black screen: so we know to look for kisses as signifiers of both desire and danger. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Campion reconfigures Osmond’s move to seduce Isabel, adding a kiss, and a parasol–Isabel’s parasol, which Osmond has got and Isabel is trying to get back. Osmond begins to spin it, so that its concentric stripes become hypnotic. Isabel reaches for it, but he extracts instead a degree of intimacy and withholds the parasol while he seduces her with words and then an erotic kiss. Marking Isabel’s fall from independence, the scene divides the film into before and after. This parasol is undoubtedly partly generic, an accoutrement of heritage cinema, but it may also function as reference to a parallel, but much more light-hearted, scene in Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career. When Harry, contemplating proposing to Sybylla, takes her punting on the pond at Fivebob Station, she holds a parasol (red with black lace for Sybylla, rather than Isabel’s more discreet black and white with black lace, because Sybylla really is flirting). In this scene of attempted romance–seduction is not the word for honest Harry–the balance of power, and the parasol, are in different hands. Sybylla is in charge here, and she’s playing. Abandoning the parasol, she announces her resistance to Harry’s charms by tipping them both out of the boat. A brief wet-Victorian-garment moment suggests an imminent kiss, but Sybylla breaks away (“Race you home”). A wild colonial girl, she may fall in love but she’s not for catching. She writes her novel and plans her brilliant career.

It’s likely that there is something deliberate in this parasol. If a comparison between these two scenes is invited, it yields similarities and differences. Both scenes put the question of marriage and the loss of independence, placing sexual desire and the desire for autonomy into conflict. In each, the parasol is a tool of seduction: manipulative, in Osmond’s hands, and flirtatious in Sybylla’s. Sybylla retains her parasol, but Osmond has Isabel’s and won’t give it back until he has given her that seductive kiss. Sybylla decides against a kiss, and in the end, against marriage. A comparison also marks the difference in tone between these two films. The threat to Sybylla is the loss of a high destiny with more than a little mock-heroic about it, at risk of sacrifice to comfortable wealth and loving Harry; the threat to Isabel is an abyss of manipulation and abuse, which John Malkovich’s Osmond makes truly scary: a dramatic loss of independence.


For the reader who cares about a character, the end matters. James sends Isabel back to Rome and–presumably–to Osmond, although she has long since realised that he married her for her money. Campion stops the film half a page short of the novel’s conclusion, leaving open the question of whether she goes back to Rome: there is nothing Jamesian about this possibility of escape. Campion also offers some visual clues that suggest a more open future. There’s that hair, if the referencing of Brilliant Career can be taken to operate as a clue here. The scene in the novel which becomes the final shot of the film repays close attention. Campion first tracks James closely and then makes a specific departure, in her direction of movement and gesture. Isabel has listened to Caspar Goodwood, an American who has pursued her since before her marriage. Insistent as ever, he asks her to leave Osmond, go away with him and be happy, but she shakes herself free and runs towards the house. Here is James’s version of the end of this scene (but not the end of the novel):

There were lights in the windows of the house; they shone far across the lawn. In an extraordinarily short time–for the distance was considerable–she had moved through the darkness (for she saw nothing) and reached the door. Here only she paused. She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path (James 490, my emphasis).

Campion renders the first part of the passage–the flight across the lawn–very closely.

But as the viewer registers the barred framing on the door, repeating the film’s visual theme of bars and cages, she introduces a change, and not only in the fact that she ends the film here. In this long final frame the sequence of Kidman’s movement and her look are critical, and Campion’s version reverses the order of James’ sentence. Kidman first puts her hand on the latch, then turns; then straightens; and her gaze lengthens. The final gaze outward, not at the interior nor back at Goodwood, constitutes the final freeze-frame, and does not plainly anticipate a ‘straight path’ back to Rome, nor a return to the confined interior. A viewer familiar with My Brilliant Career might recall that film’s final frame, of Sybylla alone–having refused Harry–leaning on the gate and, like Isabel, looking out at no-one, but at a future as yet undefined. The golden dawn of Brilliant Career is, to be sure, replaced with the dark blues and blacks of an English winter evening in Portrait: this is an altogether more dangerous future, and if things are going to look up for Isabel, it won’t be just yet.

III. “I Am Isabel, You Know”


When Sybylla, such a key figure in the nineteenth-century Antipodean ‘woman and nation’ story, and in Armstrong’s influential kick-start of women’s film-making in Australia, begins to shadow Nicole Kidman’s performance, we might well ask what exactly she is doing there. Portrait is a far more sombre and threatening film, a great deal darker, both literally and in its tone, than My Brilliant Career. The convergences I have noted between the two films tend to show up differences as much as similarities: Sybylla does not marry, is not ‘taken in’ despite a much better prospective husband. Isabel’s bad decision is taken amid the shadowy intrigues of a Byzantine society half a world away from the sunnier, simpler world Sybylla occupies. So what has Sybylla to do with a film in which, it seemed, Campion was abandoning the vernacular and staking her claim to ‘international’ status by engaging such an icon of the Anglo-American canon? There are two possible responses to this question, which do not exclude each other. One is that Campion reads Portrait as an American story no longer: now that America has moved from periphery to centre, ‘Isabel Archer’ is an Antipodean (“coming from Australia or New Zealand now makes one more like Americans going to Europe were then than Americans going to Europe are now”). Antipodean settler societies, still conscious of their place at the periphery, take up the relation to the Old World that America no longer occupies. Another explanation gestures more towards what an Antipodean framing might offer Isabel: a greater sense of openness and possibility (‘anything’s possible’). So, Campion seems to say, sotto voce–the form of this claim is more identifiable by Antipodeans than by Americans–the story’s ours now. And by the way, I don’t think I’ll send Isabel back to Osmond.

If Campion “felt so much like Isabel as a young woman,” her decision to make Portrait of a Lady her own twenty years later might be further explained by subsequent events in her own life which paralleled Isabel’s, and which can hardly have diminished her sense of identification with the character (the unhappy encounters with Europe; a relationship that left her “unable to trust for two years” (Wexman 202); and, like Isabel, the loss of a baby boy in infancy). On the set of Portrait, during the filming of the final scenes of a demanding film (Kidman described it as the most emotionally demanding film she had ever done), Campion articulates a relationship to the character which suggests both identification and loyalty. She speaks of wanting to tell Kidman

“Don’t abandon Isabel,” like I want her to be Isabel forever now. I am Isabel, you know, and I think that every woman on this film thinks the same thing, that story touches us all. (Portrait: Jane Campion and The Portrait of a Lady)

In the novel, Isabel’s return to Rome is ensured by her promise to Pansy that she will return: Pansy needs her help. Help is something Isabel badly needs too, but it is hard to find: “Ah, Ralph, you give me no help!” she accuses her cousin (James 388). In the scene I have discussed above (the penultimate scene of the novel), Caspar Goodwood’s plea to Isabel is accompanied by her recognition that “She had wanted help, and here was help” (James 489), but Caspar’s is not a help she can accept. If we are wondering what Sybylla, a ‘can-do’ heroine for whom ‘anything’s possible’, who looks so confidently to her open future at the end of Armstrong’s film–the film which for Campion “opened the door in my mind that maybe it would be possible for me too”–is doing in Portrait of a Lady, the point might be as simple as help.


I have argued here that Portrait of a Lady effects a transnational appropriation of a transnational narrative, marking Campion’s sense of shifting meanings of ‘country’ in relation to America, Australia and New Zealand, and her articulation of Antipodean narratives of ‘woman’ and ‘nation’. The ‘Australian’ opening of the film, and the referencing of My Brilliant Career, are relatively legible signs of this appropriation, but we can also understand her changes to James’s ending in this light.

The organisers of a forthcoming conference on ‘Henry James’s Europe’ observe that “For the young Henry James, the American artist abroad possessed the unprecendented advantage of his ‘national cachet,’ ‘a moral consciousness,’ and ‘unprecendented lightness and vigour,’ which generated an active relation with the old continent” (Duperray et al). Isabel Archer enacted all these qualities in a venture that, in his novel, ends in tragedy. A century later, Campion’s reading absorbs these Jamesian qualities, enacting them through the character of Isabel but also, implicitly, through her own performance as film-maker. Campion’s own “active relation with the old continent”–her own narrative of gender and nation–baulks at the tragedy, and she refuses it. Campion’s Portrait reveals once again that gender, no less than other categories of difference, is interwoven with narratives of nation, both shaped by discourses of ‘country’ and operating as a vehicle for their articulation. At the same time, it reveals the instability of narratives which speak to the meaning of country: America, no longer youthful, independent and naive, can no longer lay claim to Isabel.


Thanks to Andrew Gorman-Murray, Lawrence Jones, Erik Olssen, Chris Prentice, and Rochelle Simmons for their comments and assistance during the preparation of this article.


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Author Biography

Annabel Cooper, University of Otago

Annabel Cooper is head of the Gender Studies programme at the University of Otago. She writes on the cultural history of gender in New Zealand and occasionally Australia, and read a lot of canonical fiction when she was younger.