January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich

Like so many of the repressed characters in the novels of Henry James, Isabel Archer, a young American heiress who has the notion that she will find happiness abroad, is a psychosexual tuning fork. At the slightest touch of intimacy, her entire being quivers. In director Jane Campion’s nervy but wacky version of James’s 1881 masterpiece, Isabel isn’t so delicate. She heaves orgasmic sighs when she hears Schubert on the piano, fantasizes being groped by three men simultaneously and passionately kisses her consumptive cousin. Campion, director of the eccentric but powerful The Piano (1993), makes these moments sumptuously erotic, although a surreal sequence with what look like kidney beans whispering romantic endearments goes too far.

But sexuality is just one force at work in James’s Isabel, who is as willful as she is repressed. After making a disastrous marriage with an expatriate fortune hunter (Malkovich), Isabel balks at the idea of being contained by such an unhappy relationship. But will she walk? Beans can’t dramatize this.

Kidman, as usual, perplexes. She is waxily pretty and cries nicely. But she lacks the essential star power—mystery, luminosity or (a word James would never have used) pizzazz—that can carry a movie. Barbara Hershey, on the other hand, is perfection. As Malkovich’s mistress, this marble-skinned beauty is so morally decayed, she seems on the verge of crumbling into dust. (PG-13)

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