Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) – young, bright-eyed American, freshly arrived in Europe – says no to too many men for reasons so idealistic that her first yes can only spell tragedy. "I think that I have to begin by getting a general impression of life," she tells her ailing cousin Ralph, moments after rejecting a proposal from the titled and wealthy Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant); "there is a light that has to dawn." And dawn it does, though too late and too scant to do anything but illuminate the path of her mistakes. In Jane Campion's hands, Henry James' story of a New World naïf treads slow and elliptical, with brief, strange moments of metanarrative intrusions. The film opens with contemporary black and white shots of girls in decidedly non-Jamesian garb, the camera drifting and pausing as if to introduce these faces we never see again; halfway through, there is a short montage of Isabel at sea, played in grainy kinetoscopic jumps and framed like a secret travelogue. This is a portrait of a lady, but also a portrait of how we tell stories of women with the means and ideas to wander, and where we let them go.
Impressed by her slate of refusals, Ralph urges his dying uncle to bequeath Isabel a fortune for the project of her independence. He does, but, thanks to machinations of the socially vulturous, she falls into the path of idle, cashless aesthete Gilbert Osmond, played by John Malkovich with an almost prescient drone of millennial apathy. In the cold violence of their marriage, only Osmond's daughter, Pansy, elicits Isabel's affection, though groomed by her father for filial piety and little else. Like the daylit chambers of their Roman estate – sometimes sun-streamed, sometimes at an overcast slant – there are shades of control. Pansy is yoked to Osmond by validation, but Isabel by cruel accountability. They may not like each other, Osmond intones as Isabel weeps, "but 'we' is all I know"; the intimacy is one of their own making. So consequences feel like sad tricks to the initially beguiled.