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"It's not the easiest book to translate into film," says director Iain Softley of Henry James's The Wings of the Dove. Ring one up for the classic literary under-statement of the year. The notoriously dense late-Jamesian style, elliptical dialogue, and near-obsessive concentration on internal thoughts and consciousness guarantee an uphill battle in achieving upper-end-mainstream/borderline elite moviegoer appeal. Softley and screen-writer Hossein Amini have succeeded in crafting an intensely physical adaptation that takes enough sweeping liberties and simplifications to make James scholars cringe or shrug, but retains sufficient subtlety and sensitivity to be dramatically compelling.
The streamlining of the book emphasizes the basically melodramatic quality, when stripped down to the essentials, of James's plot. In turn-of-the-century London, a well-bred but impoverished young woman, Kate Croy (played by the matchless Helena Bonham-Carter), is confronted with conflicting demands of a secret engagement to a penniless journalist (Linus Roache) and a wealthy aunt who wants her to marry well. Into the midst of this crisis sails Milly Theale (Alison Elliott), an ingenuous American visitor who--in true Jamesian form--happens to be encumbered with an enormous fortune. Milly becomes friends with Kate, but also falls in love with Kate's fiance, Merton Densher, not knowing of the clandestine relationship. She invites him to come with her and Kate to Venice, and he does so--at Kate's urging. For Kate, having learned that Milly is fatally ill, sees in the dying girl a chance for their own happiness.
The film focuses exclusively on this triangle, somewhat at the expense of the supporting figures. Kate's aunt Maude, Susan, Milly's chaperone and caretaker, and Lord Mark, Merton's rival, such pivotal and richly complex characters in the original novel, are here reduced to merely functional roles. Fortunately, the three principal players have more than enough presence to command one's entire attention, and Softley's cinematic style--heavy on facial close-up shots, the only method by which he attempts to reproduce James's constant psychological probing of his characters--plays off every shade of expression in their looks and gestures.
Elliott, initially a tad bland as the "dove"-like American heiress, grows on you: though she never quite captures Milly's intense vitality and will to live, in her final scenes her placidity, affecting without being treacly, is vested with surprising grace. Roache (last seen in the lead role of the controversial Priest) delivers a convincing and finely nuanced performance as the attractive and passionate but indecisive lover who's neither quite strong nor quite weak enough to be a true cad.
The highest honors, however, go to Bonham-Carter, queen of the British period piece film, who wins more sympathy for the ambiguous, ambivalent villainness Kate than perhaps James ever intended to be diverted from Milly. Bonham-Carter's Kate is alternately seductive and alienating: entrapped by circumstances, at once manipulator and manipulated, cruel and vulnerable, she makes us see her as both perpetrator and victim of her own deep-laid, cold-blooded plots. It was this problematic nature of Kate's character--or, as she phrases it with succinct deadpan cool, the "bitchy attributes"--that attracted the actress to the role, and perhaps helped her play it so well: "I didn't want to dilute her. One has to like the character one's playing...[and] take the point of view of that person."
The marginalization of the older generation in Softley's film appears to have been a deliberate choice. Softley, who previously directed the youth-centered, youth-targeted films Backbeat (chronicling the Beatle who dropped out) and Hackers, makes no bones about adapting The Wings of the Dove for the same age sector: "There was the danger that an audience, though about the same age as these characters, would feel alienated [from them]...I wanted to make something that would appeal to them."
Hence the deliberate bumping of the story to 1910 (the novel was first published in 1902), to accentuate the closeness to present-day society of this transitory period of modernization, down to the street lights, elevators, subways and evening gowns. Hence also, perhaps, the film's overt eroticism, which constitutes the boldest and most potentially controversial reworking of the text. In James, the eroticism is so finely distilled that it breaks through to the surface only fleetingly, and then restricted almost entirely to the violence of suggestion and language rather than action. Softley's contemporized approach works because of the genuine erotic chemistry between Bonham-Carter and Roache, which reaches its peak at the Venice Carnival (a script addition), only to disappear completely in the one explicit sex scene (definitely a script addition), which Softley deliberately deeroticizes to show the gulf that opens between Kate and Merton. Both the sexualized metaphor of the masked carnival and the loveless sex may strike one as a bit heavy-handed, but both sequences are effective thanks to the remarkable capacity of the two actors to turn the heat on and off at will.
The scenes in Venice are lovely to look at and lovingly filmed: Softley admits that the prospect of shooting in that city was one of the most enticing aspects of the project. Again, his cinematic imagery, without being particularly inventive, has a certain visceral power: a walk through a fish-market, capturing a weird, peculiarly nauseating kind of carnality, serves to underscore Milly's physical fragility; the sunlight and warm, golden-tinted colors of Venice give way to driving rain and bleak grayness as Milly's impending discovery of Kate's and Merton's treachery looms near. To complete the contrast, the London sequences framing the Venetian interlude are marked by constant rain and dark, confining clothes.
Despite its major alterations of the text it adapts, the form of this version of The Wings of the Dove is in fact fairly conservative. No Campionesque touches a la Portrait of a Lady here. But if it's not a groundbreaking piece of art, it does succeed as a powerful, well acted and unexpectedly poignant story of love and betrayal. The cult of Henry James can take their complaints elsewhere; the rest of us can just enjoy the film as a work inspired by--not transcribed from--a great book.
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