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An interview with "Wings of the Dove" director Iain Softley.

By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  British filmmaker Iain Softley began his career behind the camera of the Beatles bio-pic Backbeat. With his next film, he switched gears and years and turned in the techno-thriller Hackers. His newest, The Wings of the Dove, takes another major leap in tone and time, jumping back to the turn of the century to tell Henry James' intense, sensual tale of passion, betrayal and transformation. In Wings of the Dove, Helena Bonham Carter plays Kate Croy, a penniless young woman taken in as a ward of her wealthy aunt. Although Kate is madly in love with working-class newspaperman Merton Densher (Linus Roache), she is expected to marry a wealthy man of high social standing. The solution to Kate's problems arrives in the form of sickly American heiress Millie Theale (Alison Elliot). If Merton can seduce the lovely American while on holiday in Venice, perhaps she will leave him a portion of her will, allowing Kate and Merton to live happily ever after. But this is Henry James we're talking about, and happy endings aren't easy to come by.

Weekly Alibi recently had the opportunity to chat with Softley about literature, cinema and turn of the century society.

There's a huge list of "literary" films coming out this fall: "Starship Troopers," "The Rainmaker," "The Horse Whisperer," "Sphere," "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," "The Postman," "Great Expectations." Why the sudden trend?

Well, we don't really view ours as a literary film. It's more "inspired" by the book as opposed to a filmed version of it. We took quite radical ideas about adapting it. There are a lot of quite huge and significant changes. We dropped a lot of characters. We focused much more on the young love triangle. We focused on the language, the etiquette, the clothes, the environment that are much more recognizable to a contemporary audience. We have pushed to the background, or deselected, a lot of the things that would have classified it as a different era. It still is a different era, but there's a sense in which it could almost appear as though it's happening now. Why are there a lot of literary adaptations? I think it's just a great source of material. It's very easy for people to get a handle on what one's trying to do. ... It's a very reliable tradition to retell stories. That's what we sort of look at (Wings) as. Rather than it being a literary adaptation, it's sort of a reinterpretation for cinema. Much the same way that, say, Verdi would have reinterpreted Shakespeare's play Othello as the opera Otello.

Do you think James is a very "cinematic" author?

No I don't. I think that the reason why I and the writer Hossein Amini, who I worked closely with, wanted to do it wasn't because we were in love with the book. We were asked to look at the book and, in a way, our initial reaction was that it was rather inappropriate to the screen. So our response to that was, well, the only way it could work was if we were to take this radical departure. And then we sort of fell in love with our solution to the problems of bringing the book to the screen. ... It was almost as though we were responding to a situation, and out of that came something else that, perhaps, allowed us to have quite a fresh, robust and radical approach to (the mat- erial). ... What the book does have, though, in terms of its cinematic adaptability is, first of all, a very interesting story--sort of a universal, timeless story about love and betrayal. And a really fascinating triangle of characters--particularly the character of Kate Croy, who is an enticing and intriguing character. And the fact that the story moves from 20th century London to Venice really clinched it for me. Because here was a town that I had very intense experiences of and a lot of memories to draw on. I was just inspired by that idea to make the film.

In your three films, you've dealt with three very different periods of time. Is history a big topic of yours?

Not really, but I do want to create other worlds--worlds that the audience may not be familiar with. Or even if it's a world that they are familiar with, to see it from a different perspective. That is my intention--to present a world as if it's vibrant and happening now and to really focus on the whole aesthetic presentation of the film in order to achieve that. Imagery and visual metaphor are very important to me.

One of the main topics in "Wings" seems to be the change between the 19th and 20th century. Was that one of the things that drew you to it?

Yeah. I think in all the films I've done that. There are characters who are trying to take control of their lives, fighting against the forces of society that are holding them back. In the case of Kate, she is a woman who exists at a time when women have just got the vote. The only way, still, that she can get recognition and respect is by marrying into money. Here people are trying to take control and, in a sense, anticipating changes in society. That was the case in Backbeat and also in Hackers--this idea of people who are involved in relationships that focus on the decisions about what they're going to do with their lives, set against those backgrounds of change. I think that there's a great microcosm/macrocosm about that.


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