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Adapting Henry James

By Ray Pride

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  With "Backbeat" and "Hackers," Iain Softley had made a reputation for himself as a director of glossy, pop-culture-steeped romances. While it seems unlikely, the former video director's adaptation of Henry James' "The Wings of the Dove" (written by Hossein Amini) is of a piece with his two earlier movies. While James purists will opt for the fug of their yellowing Penguin paperbacks, Softley and Amini have produced a handsomely appointed romance that rustles with desire, both thwarted and rewarded. And though it's one of the best-looking movies of the year, there are also performances of note, particularly Helena Bonham Carter's. Capturing both her offhand, contemporary vivacity and her "period" looks, Softley allows Carter to smile or glower and all the decor in the world of the frame melts away. (Linus Roache and Alison Elliott are the other two corners of the London and Venice-set triangle.) Among the liberties taken is a striking, emotionally painful nude scene near the film's end, as well as transporting James' 1902 novel to 1910. " This was the beginning of the world we know, the century we live in," the 40-year-old director says. "The characters face dilemmas, particularly with the meeting of the Old World and the New World, that are matched by the history." But Softley also preferred the look of 1910 over that of the nineteenth century. "I try to use visual presentation at every possible level, then the music as well, to tell, to complement and to counterpoint the story. To me, that is cinema. In 'Wings of the Dove,' as well as 'Hackers' and 'Backbeat,' I chose locations to provide an architecture that restricts or liberates the characters . The costumes in particular are important here because they're the things that house the acting, but they're also an expression of the characters. I told the designer that I wanted people to want these costumes. If people are saying 'I want to wear that!', that's a long way on the road to understanding the characters."

"Wings of the Dove" opens Friday. (Ray Pride)


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