Softley's adaptation of "Wings of the Dove" is a tragic masterwork to savor.
By Mary Dickson
DECEMBER 8, 1997: Wings of the Dove is the year's best film to date. I've already seen it twice. A sure Oscar contender, this glorious adaptation of the Henry James novel surpasses last year's The English Patient for aching romanticism.
Richly textured, superbly acted and tightly constructed, it is a feast for the heart and eyes. Lushly filmed on location in London and Venice amid the splendor of fashionable drawing rooms and gilded palazzos, it's a turn-of-the-century costume drama with strikingly modern sensibilities. British director Iain Softley (Backbeat) takes James' hard-to-read, stream-of-consciousness novel and translates it into film with a boldness and sensuality that makes it feel distinctly contemporary.
Screenwriter Hossein Amini, who waded through James' ponderous language to concentrate on the tragic story at its core, has a gift for capturing the essence of complex literature. Amini, who previously adapted Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, renders his adaptation of Wings of the Dove with a marvelous spareness, taking less than two hours to tell the story of three complex characters and their struggles between 19th-century values and 20th-century passions.
The intelligent and passionate Kate (Helena Bonham Carter) is having a clandestine love affair with the penniless journalist, Merton (Linus Roache). Kate has been taken in by her wealthy Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), who forbids her from seeing Merton. Kate must choose between taking her place in society or following her heart.
Then she meets Milly (Alison Elliot), an orphaned American heiress. Milly adores Kate, and the two become quick friends. But Milly also adores Merton, whom Kate has assured her is just "an old family friend." When the three travel to Venice, they become entangled in their own emotions and desires. When Kate learns that Milly is dying, the possibilities are too tempting. If Milly falls in love with Merton, she's sure to leave him her fortune, paving the way for Merton and Kate to be together.
Director Iian Softley so finely finesses the story that we conceive Kate's plan before she does. Kate may disdain her aunt for "hatching plots," but it is precisely what she herself now does. "Don't tell me you haven't thought of it," Kate says after voicing her idea to the stunned Merton. And so these two lovers, who aren't bad people, conspire to inherit their friend's fortune.
Kate leaves Venice to let the city work its magic on Merton and Milly, regretting her plan almost immediately. An equally regretful Merton discovers that the ailing Milly, who epitomizes selfless love, is more alive than anyone he's ever met. "Everything I've done, I've done for you," he writes to Kate. "Only it gets harder every day."
Bringing these complex characters, relationships and emotions to life is a very capable cast. In a virtuoso performance, Helena Bonham Carter achieves a depth and maturity that makes Kate her best role yet.
She realizes that in trying to manipulate the situation she stands to lose everything. In the film's most tragic scene which is not in the book, by the way Kate sits perched in a darkened room on the edge of a bed, totally naked, her pale skin almost translucent. Outside the rain pelts against the windowpane. She is completely vulnerable as she offers herself to Merton. And as they sway together more in desperation than passion, Kate turns her head away from her lover, her eyes filling with tears as the realization of all she has lost washes over her.
It's a gesture of enormous emotional pain, an image that for me will forever symbolize loss. That scene becomes the crowning achievement of director Softley's masterful Wings of the Dove. All the regret, all the longing, all the sorrow and emptiness of the wounded characters merges in that single moment.
Alison Elliott (The Spitfire Grill) is equally compelling as the third party in this triangle. Though Milly is dying, Elliott never portrays her as weak nor helpless. Though innocent, she is hardly naive. Elliott makes her a giving, adventurous, vibrant woman who embraces life. It is Milly who climbs the tower of San Marcos. It is Milly who is eager to experience everything, especially love. In Merton's company she blossoms. She so savors their idle days in Venice that she almost succeeds in hiding how ill she really is. She is more to be admired than pitied.
The beauty of Wings of the Dove is how much is conveyed in so few words. Softley moves the cameras in close, letting the textured performances reveal emotions and motivations. Everything these characters think and feel is conveyed through the subtlest of gestures and expressions. The actors perfectly capture the ambiguous, unpredictable and complex nature of these characters' thoughts and actions. It is that very ambiguity that makes them each so sympathetic, and their story so tragic.
With Wings of the Dove, Softley has created a masterwork to ponder and savor.
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