Put brutally, the marvelous The Wings of the Dove is the story of a romantic frame-up that backfires. Thankfully, nothing is put brutally in this smart, lyrical movie. Director Iain Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini cut to the thick of Henry James's masterpiece about amorous extortion and moral purification. Helena Bonham Carter displays unexpected fire as Kate Croy, a prototypical New Englishwoman who rebels against being forced into a financially profitable marriage. Her way out is to engineer a romance between her lover, Merton Densher (Linus Roache), a green Fleet Street journalist, and a dying American heiress, Millie Theale (Alison Elliott). Kate hopes that Millie will leave Merton her money and thus make her marriage to him possible. Instead, her bet pays off in friendship, jealousy and pain.
Seductive from the start, the film grows more stimulating and involving as it goes along because these three are original people who mate and recombine unpredictably. This is a rare movie about deception and redemption without any finger-wagging moralism. It asks us to identify with characters who have conflicted motives and then face the consequences of their actions, harrowingly and intimately. Set in 1910 (the novel was published in 1902), The Wings of the Dove transcends period prettiness. It has the wrenching, cathartic beauty that dramatic truth provides.
Kate and Merton aren't merely grasping for money. Like Millie, they're also grasping for life. The moviemakers clarify that Kate is hemmed in at every turn -- by her dissolute father (Michael Gambon), who believes that penury ruined his marriage, and by her rich Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), who will prepare a place for her in high society only if she forsakes her past. As F.O. Matthiessen wrote in Henry James: The Major Phase, Kate is "by no means the nakedly brutal villainess that he had projected in his notebook. She is a much more living mixture of good and evil, a far more effective register of James' mature vision of human complexity." Carter takes a fearless leap into the void with her portrayal of this headstrong woman, who is both desperate and galvanizing. In films like Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, she tended to go blank. Here, there's always something at the bottom of her eyes -- pride, anger, sexual hunger and, at the end, the sort of hurt that has no solace. Carter gives an ardent performance in a distinctly Jamesian vein: With near-telepathic magic and exactness, she conveys the fluctuations of an acute and mortified consciousness.
Linus Roache, as Merton, does something equally difficult: He conveys the dawning of a young man's conscience. Merton, still caught in a post-university daze, is timid and half-formed compared to his lover. But he responds to Kate's sentences in the charged manner peculiar to James's fiction. When these two are together, a word from the speaker incandescently connects to the listener, like the current jumping from one electrode to the other in an arc lamp. With disarming simplicity, Roache brilliantly renders James's description of the character: "The difficulty with Densher," James writes, "was that he looked vague without looking weak -- idle without looking empty." Merton suggests to James "that wondrous state of youth in which the elements, the metals more or less precious, are so in fusion and fermentation that the question of the final stamp, the pressure that fixes the value, must wait for comparative coolness."
The moviemakers have taken their cue from that passage -- and not just when it comes to Merton. Their 1910 London has an oscillating atmosphere. When Kate and Merton meet in a subway and an elevator, they emit an erotic electricity far different from their giggly euphoria when they prance outdoors in the rain. Throughout, the textured, light-streaked cityscapes and the dappling of sexually themed artworks suggest an outbreak of new energies. And the adaptation emphasizes the waning of the old ones: Lord Mark (Alex Jennings), who needs to marry money to pay the upkeep on his castle, becomes a pathetic (if dangerous) figure.
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When Kate, Merton and Millie go on holiday to Venice, chaperoned only by Millie's friend Susan (Elizabeth McGovern), the phantasmagoric location becomes the ideal base for their stratagems and fantasies. Kate wants to hang on to Merton's love while manipulating him into romance with Millie, who keeps hungering for vitality as her body wanes. As Millie, Elliott strikes the perfect note of yearning and acceptance; you never doubt her generosity toward her friends (and later her forgiveness of them). The film develops an excruciating tension richly and pleasurably: Is Kate's plan for Millie simply a way of acquiring Yankee millions for Merton? Or is it in part an act of kindness toward Millie?
The Wings of the Dove doesn't take shifting allegiances lightly; it shows the emotional toll of modernism. Kate strives to keep the faith that Merton's devotion to Millie won't alter his love for herself. By the end, she has no illusions left. The whole movie is startling and up-to-date. The subtly stylized settings, and Carter's tragic intensity, carry Kate's crucible ever closer to us. We leave singed.
The Wings of the Dove.
Directed by Iain Softley. With Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache and Alison Elliott.