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The Wings of the Dove
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The Wings of the Dove

Henry James is more celebrated for the felicities of his syntax than the vividness of his imagery, but quite a few filmmakers have translated his novels and stories to the screen, sometimes with excellent results. One of the best periods for James adaptations began in 1996, when Jane Campion directed The Portrait of a Lady with a stunning cast led by Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich; it continued in 1997 with Agnieszka Holland's stylish version of Washington Square; and ended in 2000, when James Ivory and Ismail Merchant took on the huge challenge of The Golden Bowl and almost pulled it off.

The best of the lot was The Wings of the Dove (1997), directed by British filmmaker Iain Softley, whose previous pictures were the high-spirited Backbeat (1994), about the early years of the Beatles, and Hackers (1995), a forgettable thriller about a teenage computer whiz. Where he found the inspiration for his eloquent James adaptation is anybody's guess, but find it he did. The results are dazzling in every department, from the sumptuous cinematography to the smart, sensitive acting by an expertly chosen cast. Even the movie's un-James-like candor about sex seems a reasonable accommodation to contemporary tastes, and Softley found justification for it in James's own subtexts. "His works have a dark eroticism which is quite suppressed," the director said when the film premiered.

James wrote in the preface to The Wings of the Dove that he originally planned it as the story of "a sick young woman" whose "disintegration" would be carefully detailed. If that sounds melodramatic, James may have been overcompensating for the disastrous failure of his playwriting career, which had ended when he was literally hooted off the stage after a premiere; but he was perfectly serious about the novel, which was partly based on the illness and death of his cousin Minny Temple many years earlier. By the time the book was published in 1902 he had integrated the experiences of fatally ill Millie Theale with those of several other strong characters, including Kate Croy, the novel's most memorable figure.

Kate is an attractive young Englishwoman from a very dysfunctional family – her mother is dead, her father is an opium-addicted stoner, and her protective Aunt Maude is a wealthy dowager whose mission in life is to make sure Kate marries into big money. This means not marrying Merton Densher, the dashing journalist Kate is seeing on the sly; if Merton stays in the picture, Aunt Maude icily insists, Kate and her dope-smoking dad will be cut off without a penny. Bowing to reality, Kate bids Merton a reluctant farewell and builds a new friendship with Millie, a visiting American heiress who's known as "the world's richest orphan" in the kinds of newspapers Merton writes for.

Then things turn down an unexpected path: Millie meets Merton at a party and falls in love on the spot, and Kate starts noticing clues that Millie's health is a great deal worse than she's allowing the world to believe. Although she isn't a died-in-the-wool schemer, Kate suddenly sees a way out of her dilemma, if she can be clever and crafty enough to make it work. First she'll encourage Millie and Merton to have an affair and get married; then she'll wait for Millie's impending death; and then she'll finally marry Merton, who'll be rich enough to support her in style and make Aunt Maude happy. She sets her plot in motion, letting Merton into the secret while the three of them are in Venice on a pleasure trip. The rest of the story follows with relentless logic, reaching a conclusion that's both dramatically and morally surprising.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review that the film's basic plot would be at home on daytime television – "Sold her lover to a dying rich girl" – but that the movie brings it alive by viewing the characters in the context of their era's strict moral standards, and by revealing the moral ambiguity of their situations even more generously than the novel does. Millie may be a victim in one sense, for instance, but she's desperate to experience love before she dies, and she sees Merton as the man of her dreams; and Kate might have cheered for their romance even if no fortune were at stake, since she's extremely fond of Millie and recognizes the deep-down loneliness that's tarnishing her last months of life. In the movie as in reality, motives are usually mixed and results are never as clear-cut as they may seem. As the story nears its end, Millie discovers the depressing truth about Merton that's been hidden from her, but even then, as Ebert puts it, she can "be grateful that she got to play the game."

The Wings of the Dove was filmed in a wide variety of English locations, from Kensington Gardens to the Old Royal Naval College, as well as the Shepperton Studios and – most stunningly – in the crowded canals, cobbled roadways, and matchless buildings of Venice, filmed by Eduardo Serra with an unsentimental intelligence that suits the subject to perfection. The same is true of the screenplay by Hossein Amini, whose only previous theatrical screenplay was an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's sardonic Jude the Obscure, made into the lackluster Jude by Michael Winterbottom in 1996. Amini manages to condense 500 pages of nuanced Jamesian prose into less than two hours of well-crafted dialogue and articulate actions, rarely hitting a false or artificial note, although it's unclear why he and Softley updated the story to around 1910, some years after the period laid out in the novel. Perhaps they felt the approach of World War I would lend subliminal resonance to the psychology of the tale; or perhaps they simply wanted to start the movie on a London subway train, a likely place for Kate and Merton to make mischievous eyes at each other in full view of uncomprehending strangers.

Like other first-rate James movies, The Wings of the Dove benefits from marvelous casting. Young though she was, Helena Bonham Carter had already excelled in such Merchant Ivory beauties as A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992), where she refined the skill of maintaining emotional truth while wearing costumes and speaking in rhythms borrowed from bygone times. Alison Elliott and Linus Roache are ideal choices for Millie and Merton, and the secondary players include such solid talents as Michael Gambon as the dissolute dad, Charlotte Rampling as the avaricious aunt, and Elizabeth McGovern as Millie's traveling companion and confidante. The picture earned Academy Award nominations for Bonham Carter, cinematographer Serra, screenwriter Amini, and costume designer Sandy Powell, all of them well deserved. Literary films don't come much better, and I suspect old Henry James himself would have been pleased.

Producers: Stephen Evans, David Parfitt
Director: Iain Softley
Screenplay: Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Henry James
Cinematographer: Eduardo Serra
Film Editing: Tariq Anwar
Art Direction: John Beard
Music: Edward Shearmur
With: Helena Bonham Carter (Kate Croy), Linus Roache (Merton Densher), Alison Elliott (Millie Theale), Elizabeth McGovern (Susan Stringham), Michael Gambon (Lionel Croy), Charlotte Rampling (Aunt Maude), Alex Jennings (Lord Mark), Georgio Serafini (Eugenio).
C-102m. Letterboxed.

by David Sterritt

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