Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is a struggling artist who isn’t making any money off of his work. He paints a lot of still life and floral subjects, and buyers just don’t want them, though the rich Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) sees a lot of potential in him.
One day while walking through the park, Eben meets a young girl named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones). Jennie’s optimistic attitude has an effect on Eben, who she is absolutely enamored of.
The two continue to see each other in the park every once in a while, with Jennie looking older each time. She encourages him to find inspiration for his art and to go outside of his comfort zone by pursuing different subject matter, particularly portraits.
Eben takes her encouragement and decides to paint a portrait of her, but there’s something odd about her. He makes progress in his art while trying to uncover the mystery of who Jennie is and where she came from.
William Dieterle directs the fantasy-romance Portrait of Jennie, released in 1948. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Robert Natham.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” – Keats
This quote, along with some narration focused on the passage of time and pretty shots of clouds, opens up the film. This opening sets the stage for a contemplative, romantic film, and Portrait of Jennie is just that. The premise of the film is incredibly interesting, especially with the mystery aspect of who Jennie is and whether or not she’s a ghost. The film as a whole, however, turned out to be not at all what I expected.
(I’m going to try my best to point out some of the issues without spoiling anything, since part of the film’s draw is the fantasy element and I don’t want to ruin that for anyone who hasn’t seen it already!)
Between the opening and the positive things I’d heard about the film in the past, I was expecting an epic, sweeping romantic drama. Instead, what I got was a somewhat unusual but at the same time unremarkable drama lacking in any true romantic sentiment. There are a few scenes that reach the film’s potential, but they don’t come often.
Part of the problem here is the casting. Call me crazy, but I saw very little chemistry between Cotten and Jones. I have yet to watch any of the other three films they made together, but I’d be interested to, if for no other reason than to see if they make a better pair elsewhere.
I don’t really like Jones in her role at all; her delivery makes the whole tale seem extremely contrived, save for a few scenes (like *MILD SPOILER ALERT* the scene in which Jennie reveals that her parents have died. *END SPOILER*). I get that she was trying to give the character a childlike charisma, and she does become slightly less annoying (for lack of a better word) as the character gets “older,” but even so she feels incredibly mismatched with Cotten. Cotten’s performance is solid, but as a pair he and Jones don’t do much to bolster the film’s success in terms of viewer interest and emotional impact. Some of Cotten’s solitary scenes are the most impactful, included in the small few that do reach the film’s potential as I mentioned earlier.
I wanted desperately to like this film, and the premise alone did hold my attention for the most part, but there are too many issues for me to score it very highly. I can see what it wanted to be, and it would have been a great film had it met that potential — as great as the film I went in expecting in the first place. The score: 2.8/5 (slight bonus points for nice cinematography and unusual incorporation of tint/color at the end)