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The Boston Phoenix Flight Plan

When a period role comes up, directors turn to Bonham Carter.

By Jeffrey Gantz

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  With her short hair and casual sweater and skirt, she could be ready for a night out at Axis or the Middle East. She's still actress-beautiful, but you wouldn't guess that Helena Bonham Carter has made a career out of roles in cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare (Ophelia in the Zeffirelli Hamlet, Olivia in last year's Twelfth Night) and E.M. Forster (Lucy in A Room with a View, Caroline in Where Angels Fear To Tread, Helen in Howards End). She does contemporary, too -- Woody Allen's faithful wife in Mighty Aphrodite, for example. Yet as '90s -- 1990s -- as she looks, there's a poise and grace about her, as she pours out another cup of tea in her sitting room at the Lenox Hotel, that explains why directors keep coming back to her for roles like Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove.

She's so immersed in James's sensibility, it's hard to believe she didn't read the entire book. "I made it through about two-thirds of it. I gleaned the atmosphere and the characters and the nature of their relationships and the way they talk to each other, which is so torturous -- it's the way they don't say what can't be said." Which, of course, is what James is about -- the plot is secondary. For the record, Linus Roache (who plays Merton Densher) didn't even attempt the book, and Christopher Eccleston, who had the title role in last year's Jude, made a point of not reading the Hardy novel because, like Roache, he wanted to concentrate on Hossein Amini's screenplay. And Amini? "He did read it," Bonham Carter confirms. "Well, he told me he read it. But he put it aside pretty quickly. I think he felt that the only way to adapt it was in an incredibly free -- but not disrespectful -- way. More 'inspired by' than faithful. But the bones of the story are there, and the characters, and I hope the ambiguity and the complexity."

Indeed, Kate Croy is even more ambiguous and complex than Bonham Carter's largely sympathetic Forster heroines. "I didn't want audiences to like her, I wanted them to have a complex reaction, feel contradictory toward her. In a way I wanted her to be as honest [to the book] as possible, there's a brazenness about her, when she lies to Milly, it's outrageous." She seems to have succeeded. "One person said to me, "Well, I thought I liked your character, but by the end I didn't. But I still cared."

Then there's the celebrated nude scene -- nudity in a Henry James film? But Bonham Carter has a plausible explanation. "I think what the filmmakers wanted was just the one scene where everything is laid down and where Kate and Merton have to face each other with literally a naked honesty. And that's where she's the most courageous, because she asks the question even though she knows the answer, but there's no other way forward. Other people might just carry on, and it would be a dreadfully unhappy marriage. But Kate -- by the end she does live by truth. And there is a sort of redemption in that."

Even more controversial might be the final scene. In the book, Kate walks out on Merton, saying, "We shall never be again as we were." In the film Merton returns to Venice, to live on Milly's money and Milly's memory. "That was a disputed scene. This is a film that had a different ending every week. There was one in which Merton plays football with young people while Milly watches. We wanted to have some hope. It was always just a coda."

-- Jeffrey Gantz

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