Immediately following on the heels of Jane Campion’s 1996 film of The Portrait of a Lady, starring Nicole Kidman, and Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square in 1997, with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Maggie Smith, audiences got 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’s filmability has often suffered in direct proportion to the success with which he achieved the trademark purposes of his literary art. 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 beyond their surface observations. 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, and the reader is excluded from certain encounters. At the core of his later novels is James’s belief that life is a process of perceiving “the great things,” attaining understanding through awareness 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 more explicit fare, it has made filming his major works an even thornier proposition.
Iain Softley’s 1997 version of The Wings of the Dove, like Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, isn’t shy about taking liberties. For one thing, it is palpably condensed. Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini dare to distill the essence of James’s novel rather than try to hoodwink us with an overstuffed Edwardian waxworks, and we can admire the effort even as we find it lacking. While at 99 minutes it is a welcome relief from those turgid period pieces which—wanting in accuracy of detail or spirit—seek to impress with sheer length, there’s an apologetic, summarized feel to the undertaking. The foreshortening is 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 the key events of the denouement have been altered with cheapening, though not fatal, effects. Still, Softley’s direction and Amini’s adapted screenplay (Oscar and BAFTA nominated) get more right than wrong in their attempt to cinematize the visually ineffable Jamesian gist.
The plot is a melodrama (“vulgar” by James’s own description). It’s what he does with it, and what he would have us make of it, that pry 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’s 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 (BAFTA nominated), and the cinematography of Eduardo Serra (BAFTA winner, Oscar nominated) brings the golden light and rain-dappled shadows of Venice to ethereal life.
Helena Bonham Carter is more interesting here than in her earlier screen performances. Her Kate Croy marks the beginning of her middle career—she lets her voice nestle in a lower range and projects a canny maturity that has far more heft than the lineup of strident ingenues in which she had previously been stuck—and she received Best Actress BAFTA and Oscar nominations. Roache (Priest, Before the Rains) 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 to comprehend the transformative “largeness” of which James provides such haunting intimations.
In addition to Rampling’s memorable performance as Kate’s machinating aunt, the supporting cast is uniformly A-list and includes Michael Gambon, Alex Jennings, and Ben Miles. 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 in the gilded salons and pastel Venetian light the mourning-dove murmur of a sort of trailing greatness.
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Netflix DVD, Amazon Video, Vudu, and other select streaming sites)