Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Death in Venice ...and in Savannah

By Hadley Hury

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  Following on the heels of The Portrait of a Lady and the recently released Washington Square (which has not yet been shown in Memphis), American audiences now have their third chance in less than 18 months to respond to the rather quixotic challenge of translating Henry James to film. A writer perhaps best known for the “interiorization” of his novels – in which only the barely registered twist of a synapse or the smallest inaudible gasp may indicate cataclysmic psychological or emotional upheavals or some life-altering spiritual revelation – James’ filmability suffers in direct proportion to the success with which he achieved his artistic purposes. If in the past few years Edith Wharton’s works have met with better treatment at the hands of filmmakers, it may well be because her novels of manners tend not to indicate anything, other than the more obvious ironies, beyond the manners themselves. James used the novel of manners to indicate larger ideas and passions; they open outward as if from a great precipice, providing a dimensionally complex vision, not a surface observation. As his view of the human comedy matured, taking on wider and more deeply felt concerns, he became a master of indirection, and his goal of seamlessly blending character, action, and theme fairly well displaced omniscient narrative.

By the time of The Wings of the Dove (1902), James was using brilliantly intricate stylistic effects to create (ironically enough) a new kind of realism, melding his theatrical sense of dialogue as narrative, multiple viewpoints, and dramatic ellipsis. A master of subtlety, he asks his readers to accept the responsibility of ferreting out for themselves what is happening in the story. Going even farther, James places many key moments “off-stage,” as in classical tragedy: expected scenes never materialize; the reader is excluded from certain encounters. At the core of his later novels is James’ belief that life is a process of seeing “the great things,” through awareness attaining understanding and, thereby, achieving, if not freedom, the illusion of freedom. Through his masterfully controlled obliquities he sought to force the reader to see for himself. He wanted his art to provoke life, not talk about it. If this demand has caused more than a few 20th-century readers to pass over James in favor of lighter or more explicit fare, it makes filming his major works an even thornier proposition.

Iain Softley’s version of The Wings of the Dove, like Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, isn’t shy about taking liberties. For one thing, it is palpably condensed; and while at 99 minutes it is a welcome relief from recent period pieces which – wanting in accuracy of detail or spirit – seek to impress with sheer length, there’s an apologetic, Cliffs Notes feel to the undertaking. Softley dares to distill the essence of James’ novel rather than try to hoodwink us with an overstuffed Edwardian waxworks, and we can admire the effort even as we find it lacking. The foreshortening is also felt in how and when the primary characters meet one another: Softley’s shortcuts and compressions make narrative filmic sense; they just don’t happen – rather crucially – to be how James intended us to discover and come to know the relationships. And, finally, the key events of the denouement have been altered with cheapening, though not fatal, effects.

The plot is a melodrama (“vulgar” by James’ own description). It’s what he does with it – and what he would have us make of it – that pries open the big questions about human love and spiritual possibilities. Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) is a pretty and penniless young woman taken in by her rich and scheming aunt (Charlotte Rampling) who seeks to marry her off suitably. But Kate is in love with the equally penniless and charming Merton Denscher (Linus Roache), a journalist. Kate’s aunt will cut her off unless she drops Merton. Kate and Merton happen to befriend an orphaned American heiress, Millie Theale (Alison Elliott), who is terminally ill. Kate asks Merton to marry Millie, who is in love with him, knowing that she will leave her fortune to him and that after her imminent death, she and Merton can marry.

Though despicable, the couple’s plan unfurls with James’ ironic sympathy for the economic determinism that entraps Kate. What they do not bargain for is the Jamesian “great thing” that Millie’s love for both of them evokes: her generosity of spirit and her capacities for love live on after her death – with profound consequences.

Much of the film takes place in Venice, where Millie goes when she hears the prognosis for her illness, and this is where Softley’s film has its greatest success. It captures James’ almost excruciatingly delicate tug-of-war between good and evil, life and death, spirit and flesh. Kate accompanies Millie and, soon, Merton joins them. As Kate says to Merton: “She didn’t come here to die, she came here to live.”

This brief season of glamour and tenderness, of duplicity and forgiveness, is mesmerizing. Softley’s graceful pacing and his use of revelatory close-ups feel exactly right, Sandy Powell’s costumes are very fine, and the cinematography of Eduardo Serra brings the golden light and rain-dappled shadows of Venice to ethereal life.

Helena Bonham Carter is more interesting here than ever before. She lets her voice nestle in a lower range and projects a canny maturity that is more watchable than the lineup of strident ingenues in which she has heretofore been stuck. Roache (who did a fine job in the title role in Priest) is perfect as Merton, intelligently sexy, at first cynical, ultimately vulnerable to the large lessons with which life engulfs him. As Millie, Elliott is pictorially correct – American as apple pie, with a sweet, fun-loving smile. Unfortunately, the actress doesn’t exude the magnanimity or spiritual grace necessary for us even to begin to see “the greatness” of which James provides such haunting intimations.

For all its presumptions and faux pas, Softley’s essay of The Wings of the Dove is a fairly honorable defeat. At times, hovering around certain frames of the film, just off-camera and if only obliquely (discretions of which James might approve), we sense the mourning-dove murmur of a sort of falling greatness.

Clint Eastwood’s direction of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is careful and competent, qualities which, though admirable in themselves, do not serve John Berendt’s Southern Gothic mystery particularly well. The mystery of Berendt’s “fictionalized non-fiction” account of a murder among Savannah’s elite is two-fold: (1) the clouded circumstances of the crime itself, and (2) the inexplicable success of the book, which, though unarguably a good read, is not exactly another Gone With the Wind, and which has now been on The New York Times Bestseller List for three years and four months.

What Berendt’s book does have is a page-turning pace and a closely observed appreciation for the eccentricities of social Savannah. What it needed for its transfer to the screen was the cinematic sophistication of a Stephen Frears or even the risk-taking imagination of a real esoteric – say, Nicholas Roeg. Eastwood has approached its wry delectations, demi-monde frissons, and Low Country gallery of rogues like a big-game hunter or a respectful but rather pedantic expeditionary from National Geographic. The atmosphere of Savannah, fecund for intrigues of every sort, has been dispelled by a directorial interpretation and photography that are guidebook glossy and crisp with literalness. The local eccentrics don’t seem to populate scenes; they are the focus of overcomposed, deep-focus camera work, circling pan shots, and cutesy musical cues, as if Eastwood had brought them back to perform in an exhibit at a natural history museum. The melodramatic mythicism that gave the director’s work in his Oscar-winning Unforgiven a dark, haunting quality would have suited this material; instead, we get the staid and static earnestness of The Bridges of Madison County. (Maybe Clint should avoid the siren call of popular fiction.)

The edge of its mystery dulled and its sense of place and character misconveyed, Eastwood’s treatment unfolds as a well-meaning, workmanlike, but inescapably wrongheaded case study in film adaptation. With so much missed, it seems particularly surprising that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is over two-and-a-half hours long.

What it has going for it is a good performance by the unflappable Kevin Spacey as Savannah bon vivant and antiques dealer Jim Williams, who is tried for the murder of a young man who, on volatile and variable terms, had been both in his employ and in his bed. With another director, Spacey might have gone further with Williams’ jaded charm, his irreverent humor, and the carefully manicured parameters of his emotional life. As it is, we sense Spacey struggling in an artistic void and, for once, his famous subtlety becomes a case of less is less. To his great credit, this always resourceful actor manages to catch at least the outline of a slippery personality and to indicate the dichotomies that made Williams such an intriguing subject. The other sparkplugs in this soporific Midnight are The Lady Chablis, a notorious Savannah transvestite performer who plays her/himself, and Jack Thompson, the Australian actor, who does a surprisingly dead-on, down-home turn as Williams’ attorney.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is not a bad movie, just a misguided and rather vapid one. Perhaps the most appropriate way to enjoy it would be on a rainy winter evening with a fire and a julep, gin, or scotch – and with all the Southern sensibility you can muster for passing a long stretch of enforced leisure.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Film & TV: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Memphis Flyer . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch