Friday November 7, 1997
Despite a dense, convoluted writing style that makes no concessions to readers in a hurry, magisterial novelist Henry James has lately become a favorite of movie-makers. This last year has seen Jane Campion's "Portrait of a Lady," Agnieszka Holland's "Washington Square" and now Iain Softley's unlikely success with "The Wings of the Dove," which against some odds turns out to be the most emotionally involving of the group.
As written by Hossein Amini, who also did the adaptation for "Jude," this is inevitably a stripped-down version of James, with the novel's plot pared away and rerouted and everything so plainly stated that James purists are likely to get all huffy if they even bother to see the film at all.
But for everyone else, even simplified James is more complex and absorbing than most of what reaches the screen. The author's great underlying themes and his gift for character are all in play here and help make this melancholy story of love, delusion and misguided sacrifice unexpectedly moving and satisfying.
Like many of James' novels, "The Wings of the Dove" examines lovers and would-be lovers trapped in a limbo between the avaricious, cynical and status-obsessed world of Europe and the more innocent and open society of newly wealthy America, invariably represented by a young and vulnerable heiress. It shows that though the webs convention spins may be gossamer-thin, they bind like steel. And it unmistakably illustrates how both the possession of money and the zeal to acquire it can lead to genteel but crushing tragedy.
In telling this story, director Softley and his crew (including cinematographer Eduardo Serra, production designer John Beard and costume designer Sandy Powell) have in part taken the Merchant Ivory approach. "Wings of the Dove" is richly appointed and beautifully mounted, with lush location shooting in Venice given the place of honor.
But Softly and screenwriter Amini have gone further, adding a decidedly bodice-ripper tone to the proceedings. "Wings" features sexual encounters, nudity and a visit to an opium den, and its embracing of pulp rapture is reminiscent of the director's debut, the Beatles-themed "Backbeat."
"Wings" also takes advantage of subtle acting across the board, especially from star Helena Bonham Carter. Physically at home at the turn of the century as few other actresses are, Bonham Carter, who graced both "A Room With a View" and "Howards End," here gives her most mature performance to date. She conveys romantic longing and passion both repressed and expressed, and even convincingly wears the enormous and elaborate hats of the period.
Her character, Kate Croy, is introduced just after she has been acquired as a ward by her aunt, the commanding and aristocratic Maude (Charlotte Rampling). Maude gives Kate clothes, jewels and status and also provides funds for the girl's reprobate father, but there is of course a price to paid. Kate is forbidden to marry for love alone or do anything else that might offend the sensibilities of the status-obsessed ruling class.
This is a problem because Kate is in love with the radical journalist Merton Densher (Linus Roache of "Priest"). He wants to marry her as soon as possible, but Kate, "not good at being impulsive," is also reluctant to jeopardize both her own and her father's security.
Also the year is 1910 (moved up nearly a decade from the book's setting), a time when society's strictures are beginning to come undone. Women are smoking, enjoying erotica and starting to take offense when men say, "There's far too much going on behind those pretty lashes." Why, Kate is thinking, can't both money and love be available to her?
Then American heiress Millie Theale (Alison Elliott), "the world's richest orphan," appears in London. Impulsive, warm-hearted and free-spirited, she becomes fast friends with Kate, but that doesn't mean the women share all their secrets. Millie is not told about Merton, and when Kate finds out the real reason for her friend's trip to Europe, she constructs a nervy plan that is fraught with more peril than she can imagine.
A lot of actresses have played James' susceptible heiresses over the years, from Cybill Shepherd in "Daisy Miller" to Nicole Kidman in "Portrait of a Lady." So it's saying quite a bit to note that almost no one has caught the requisite artlessness and lack of affectation as well as Elliott. As different here from the role she played in "Spitfire Grill" as that was from Steven Soderbergh's "The Underneath," Elliott has that rare chameleon-like ability to become truly different people every time she appears on screen.
Finally, however, the success of this film rests on the work of Bonham Carter. Though the filmmakers have smartly placed her in a more positive light than James did, Kate is still an ambiguous character, a causer of pain but also heartbreaking when she says, "I hurt so much, you can't imagine." As the personification of the unknowability, the unpredictability of the human heart, her performance is outstanding.
The Wings of the Dove, 1997. R, for sexuality. A Renaissance Dove production, released by Miramax Films. Director Iain Softley. Producers Stephen Evans, David Parfit. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Paul Feldsher. Screenplay Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Henry James. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Editor Tariq Anwar. Costumes Sandy Powell. Music Ed Shearmur. Production design John Beard. Supervising art director Andrew Sanders. Set decorator Joanne Woollard. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Helena Bonham Carter as Kate Croy. Linus Roache as Merton Densher. Alison Elliott as Millie Theale. Charlotte Rampling as Aunt Maude. Elizabeth McGovern as Susan. Michael Gambon as Kate's father. Alex Jennings as Lord Mark.