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The Boston Phoenix Dove Tale

Clipping Henry James's "Wings" helps it fly.

By Peter Keough

NOVEMBER 17, 1997: 

THE WINGS OF THE DOVE, Directed by Iain Softley. Written by Hossein Amini based on the novel by Henry James. With Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache, Alison Elliott, Charlotte Rampling, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Gambon, and Alex Jennings. A Miramax Films release. At the Harvard Square.

Some find novelist Henry James's dialogue hard to follow, but it sure grabs your attention when recited by Helena Bonham Carter in the nude. Jamesian purists will probably be annoyed with director Iain Softley's attempt to modernize the first Modernist from the opening-credit sequence onward: Kate Croy (Bonham Carter) engaging in an illicit tryst with her low-rent lover, journalist Merton Densher (Linus Roache, stiff but oddly eloquent), in the Mimic-like murk of the London Underground.

Although not as freewheeling as Jane Campion in The Portrait of a Lady, Softley endeavors to cut through James's exquisite convolutions and ambiguities to the bare essentials of this tale of love, mortality, and the many shades of betrayal while at same time filling the screen with lush sets, costumes, and cinematography as dense as the author's prose. To be faithful to the James's relentless subjectivity would have been fatal; he's a creator not of scenes so much as of the ineffable labyrinths of consciousness, intent, and points of view behind the scenes -- the failure of his stage career demonstrated his incapacity for working otherwise.

The challenge for the filmmaker is to make the succulent, endlessly investigated abstractions concrete, and also to compress not so much the narrative as the psychology. Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini do so with almost ruthless effectiveness. It's the best adaptation of James on screen since William Wyler's The Heiress in 1949. As with that film, which fit Washington Square neatly into the conventions of melodrama, Softley's acknowledged intent here is to translate the novel into another movie genre, film noir.

If Softley is right (though the cinematography is umbrous, I think it's still mostly melodrama), then the femme fatale of this noir -- at least initially -- is the tyrannical, socially eminent Maud Lowder (Charlotte Rampling in a fair imitation of the Evil Queen in Sleeping Beauty). Kate's aunt, she's been her patroness since the death of Kate's mother and the bankruptcy and dissolution of her father (Michael Gambon in a small but resonant role). Although generous, she is also unyielding in her wish that Kate marry well. That excludes Merton, who scribbles for a pittance for a muckraking journal and attends the occasional socialist meeting. Forbidden to see Merton under the threat of being disowned, Kate withdraws in order to "wait."

Her waiting bears fruit in the form of Milly Theale (an alternately bland and Pre-Raphaelite Alison Elliott), a beautiful American with lots of money and not much time to live. Milly takes a shine to Kate, and more so to Merton. An evil idea comes to Kate: why not have Merton woo Milly and inherit her money?

It's a deadly scheme, the more so because it mixes self-interest with altruism -- both Kate and Merton genuinely love the brave and sweet-natured visitor. Shaking off Aunt Maud (so much for the femme fatale, and neither does Kate replace her), the three head to Venice and the illusion of freedom. For Softley, the freedom is real, as he transforms into a shimmering, dark-edged surface the depths of James's exploration of this triangle's expanding deceits, jealousies, self-deceptions, and self-sacrifices.

For that he can thank his cast, especially Bonham Carter, whom he serves with unblinking close-ups. She's both harder-edged and more emotionally refined than in any previous performance. One only wishes she had been cast as Milly; Elliott is vivid and expressive, but she's too damned healthy looking -- her enigmatic presence, which is at the heart of the novel, is pushed to the side. Pushed to the forefront, though, are the lush settings, which Softley employs to mirror his characters' inner turmoil. Part of his method is alluding to artists of the period with mostly rapturous effect. True, placing a scene in a gallery full of Gustav Klimt paintings is a bit much, but a carnival in which Kate's plot tumultuously succeeds and backfires revels in John Singer Sargent's moody lighting and sweeping compositions.

When death comes at last, it's in the form of a woman in black, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, crossing a delicate bridge over a Venetian canal. It's enough to reverse the plans of all, revealing both their venality and their virtue. In The Wings of the Dove, neither good nor bad intentions go unpunished; in Softley's version, at least the artistic intentions are rewarded.

Peter Keough can be reached at pkeough@phx.com.

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