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Gambit Weekly Passion and Security

By Rick Barton

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  A key premise of Orson Welles' enduring Citizen Kane is that its protagonist might have become a truly great man if he hadn't been so rich. At the same time, the film demands that we not judge Charles Foster Kane's original acceptance of his vast fortune. Who could have refused? Ian Softley's sensuous and sumptuous The Wings of the Dove wrestles with a comparable issue. Who doesn't crave the security of material wealth? And yet, how often does pursuit of money wreck our nobler, more closely held ambitions.

Adapted by screenwriter Hossein Amini from Henry James' 1902 novel, The Wings of the Dove is the story of Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter), a lower-middle-class London girl who has the chance to escape her circumstances when she's taken in by her maternal Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling) after the death of her mother. Maude is a cold aristocrat who despises Kate's father (Michael Gambon) for dragging her sister into poverty. Maude's conditions for taking Kate under her wing include a small stipend for Kate's father and the requirement that father and daughter break off all contact. Moreover, Maude is determined to see Kate married to a man of means. And to that end, she forbids Kate to continue keeping company with the man Kate loves, common journalist Merton Densher (Linus Roache). Kate tries to have it both ways, agreeing to Maude's demands but sneaking out for trysts with Merton and visits with her father.

Enter beautiful, frail, fabulously wealthy Millie Theale (Alison Elliott), an American on extended holiday in Europe. Kate and Millie are kindred spirits and quickly become fast friends. They are both free-spirited and open-minded in an age when women are supposed to be homemakers and childbearers. But whereas Kate is hardy and resilient, Millie is dying. Her European sojourn is a race against death, a determined effort to fill herself with experience and hold back the ravages of her body through the exercise of pure will.

The fateful intertwining of Kate's and Millie's futures happens when Maude learns of Kate's continuing involvement with Merton and threatens to cut her off. Faced with an unwanted choice between love and wealth, Kate attempts to orchestrate a union between Merton and Millie. If Merton can inherit Millie's fortune, then Kate can have both love and money after Millie's death. Distasteful as the plot seems on its face, it is fraught with artfully complicated elements. Kate's caring for Millie is genuine, and she hopes that Merton's attentions will bring Millie a measure of joy in her dying days. Kate's motives are not altogether selfish in other ways as well. Maude has threatened to leave Kate's father penniless if Kate does not sever her relationship with Merton.

There are a couple of missteps here. Nobody explains how a salaried employee like Merton can take leave of his newspaper job and afford to accompany Kate and Millie on an open-ended visit to Venice. In fact, if he has enough money for that, we wonder if Kate isn't just outright greedy. Elsewhere, Kate's decision to let the odious Lord Mark (Alex Jennings) in on the details of her scheme doesn't wash. Her stated reason is plenty powerful, but that reason is not served by her action.

The tragic triangle of Millie (Alison Elliott), Kate (Helena Bonham Carter) and Merton (Linus Roache) makes The Wings of the Dove an unforgettable film.

For the most part, though, this is a masterful production. Amini and Softley's reshaping of James' story to focus on Kate instead of Millie allows the filmmakers to heighten the tragedy for all involved. Kate's character emerges in this version as more complicated and more human. She is not a vile person. Her concern for her father is sincere, and her willingness to sacrifice to protect him is admirable.

Still, Kate is foolish and unintentionally cruel, of course, in believing that she can so easily play games with the human heart -- Millie's in the first, most blatant instance, but Merton's and her own as well. Softley stages the seduction of Merton at a masked ball in Venice, and its atmosphere of recklessness, deception and danger is perfect. As Kate spills out her infamous proposal, a bright moon lights her eyes with the lunacy of a demon.

The three principal players are magnificent, particularly the women. It's nice to see Carter play a role with greater edge than she's enjoyed in her other high-profile costume dramas, A Room With a View and Howard's End. Her striking nude scene is all the more impressive for establishing and sustaining her climactic defenselessness. Elliott, meanwhile, is nothing less than sensational. She affects you so strongly that you want to rush onto the screen and spirit her away to our own time, when modern medicine could save her. Her vulnerability makes you weep. You want to embrace and hold her and breathe life back into her exhausted frame. And yet the majesty of the achievement here is that you wish no vengeance on Kate and Merton that they don't bring upon themselves. The Wings of the Dove leaves you hurting for them all.

Rebel for Right

FILM: La Promesse
STARRING: Jeromie Renier, Olivier Gourmet
DIRECTORS: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

Inspired by a passage in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, La Promesse is a stubborn message of hope. It finds all mankind guilty of inhumane acts and then encourages us to believe that a core of decency lurks within the heart of everyone.

Written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, La Promesse is the story of a 15-year-old boy whose act of adolescent rebellion is taken in the name of contrition and kindness rather than in a stance of defiance and cruelty. Though we are never told this, we suspect that Igor (star-in-the-making Jeromie Renier) is himself the son of an immigrant. At any rate, his father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), is now involved in smuggling illegal aliens into contemporary Belgium and setting them up with falsified residency papers and work permits. This is a story of rank exploitation. New to the country, the immigrants live in sordid, poorly ventilated and ill-heated rooms in a housing complex Roger owns and manages. He pays them slave wages to work for him and occasionally betrays a handful of his wards to relieve pressure from corrupt city officials.

Igor (Jeromie Renier, right) longs to be carefree, but he must face the realities of the world in La Promesse.

In part, we see that Igor is just a child, a typical teen interested in hanging with his friends and building a go-cart. But Igor is also Roger's primary lieutenant. Igor is supposed to be studying auto mechanics under an apprenticeship program, but he's forever skipping out of work to assist his father. In so doing, he's made friends with a number of Roger's boarders. He seems particularly connected to a black man named Amidu (Rasmane Ouedraogo), whose wife, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), and baby son have just arrived from their native Ghana. When Amidu is injured in a fall from a scaffold at one of Roger's building projects, Igor tries to save him and beseeches his father to rush the dying man to the hospital. But Roger refuses because he fears that investigating authorities will topple his entire illegal immigrant operation. It is not clear that Amidu could be saved. Probably not, in fact. But Roger's indifference registers with Igor even as he accepts his fathers orders and ultimately helps bury Amidu in concrete. But before he dies, Amidu elicits a promise that Igor will look after Assita and their child. To do so, Igor must defy his father, who quickly devises plans to send Assita off to Germany (perhaps into a life of prostitution).

Not everything holds together here. I don't know what we're supposed to make of Assita's seeking (and receiving clues about) Amidu's whereabouts in smears of chicken entrails, and in an African seer's studies of shells thrown over smoothed sand. Elsewhere, Roger's determination to trick Assita into going to Germany seems needless given her desire to go to Italy on her own. But most important, the film doesn't motivate Igor's transformation with enough clarity. When we first meet Igor, he's stealing the pocketbook of an elderly woman living on a pension. Subsequently, the Dardenne brothers never establish a clear catalyst for Igor's conversion. It's true that his father is a brute, but Roger and Igor have the kind of relationship that more often leads to reactive abuse syndrome than to redemption.

Still, La Promesse is a riveting, memorable and haunting work. In a way more gut-wrenching than Jerzy Skolimowski's metaphorical Moonlighting, La Promesse reveals the horrors awaiting those desperate souls who try to trade the poverty and oppression in their homelands for the beckoning prosperity of the West. Slavery and indentured servitude are no longer legal, but what waits in the slums of the big Western cities frequently is little different from those peculiar institutions. Only Gregory Nava's heartbreaking El Norte rivals La Promesse in illustrating how far we still have to go in this regard.

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