The Wings of the Dove (1997)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Director – Iain Softley
Writer – Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Henry James
Director of photography – Eduardo Serra
Editor – Tariq Anwar
Music – Ed Shearmur
Production designer – John Beard
Producers – Stephen Evans and David Parfitt
STARRING: Helena Bonham Carter (Kate Croy), Linus Roache (Merton Densher), Alison Elliott (Millie Theale), Charlotte Rampling (Aunt Maude), Elizabeth McGovern (Susan), Michael Gambon (Kate’s Father) and Alex Jennings (Lord Mark).
Miramax Films. 101 minutes. Rated R.

I haven’t read Henry James novel The Wings of the Dove, but I’ve seen enough movies to know that a great novel does not a great movie make.

Quite probably, this adaptation is an example of too much story, too little screen time.

Director Iain Softley’s much-acclaimed film version deserves praise for its Oscar-nominated costuming and cinematography. But its script fails to develop the central characters enough for us to care much about them. In the end, it’s an ordeal to watch desire overcome discernment until disaster inevitably follows.

It’s a shame that Helena Bonham Carter earned a Best Actress nomination for this performance, as she’s been so much better in other films. The previous year’s Margaret’s Museum demonstrated her quirky, reckless personality as well as her beauty, but that movie was unfortunately overlooked.

Here, Bonham Carter plays Kate Croy, a young woman being groomed for the life of an early 1900′s upper class British lady. Croy’s smart enough to pull it off, but she’s so in love with Merton (Linus Roache), a poor boy journalist, that she’s willing to commit a cruel deception to get what she wants.

Bonham-Carter has the talent to make this work, but the script robs her of the opportunity. The problem is this – we’re given no reason to care about these two yearning hearts, and thus we are missing the necessary tension when we see Kate and Merton’s love endangered by their own foolishness. Our only evidence of their love is a garish display of hormones. One would hope they are attracted to each other for more reasons than good kissing.

As we watch naughty Kate dupe her wishy-washy lover into faking affection for Millie, a dying rich girl (Eliot), in order to win her heart and her money, we are disgusted by the plan, unconvinced by the plotting lovers, and a little sorry for the dying million-heiress, who actually achieves a few moments of genuine charm. Millie falls hard for the young man and, predictably, Merton begins to feel something genuine for her, leaving his poor lover in a puddle of anxiety. Kate’s jealousy leads, of course, to disaster.

In the end, there’s little suspense, since there is no one to sympathize with or applaud. We can only shake our heads and say “Poor poor Millie… bad bad Kate!” And when the tormented Merton finally confesses to his sour-faced lover that the dying Millie is “more alive than anyone I have ever met”, we are somewhat surprised. Is he exaggerating? Sure, she’s a charming girl, but we must have missed the scenes where she really let loose with a love for life!

Overall, this adaptation leaves us with a pageant of base behavior, outbursts of emotions without evident foundations, and characters who never live up to others’ perceptions of them. On any week, you can probably find a prime time television drama that demonstrates the morals of the story – tell the truth and don’t let money dictate your decisions – with more subtlety and eloquence.

It might have been far more satisfying to see Merton to shape up, fall in love with Millie, save her life, and then prosecute the reprehensible Kate. But James’ story is about disintegration and corruption, not redemption. Still, the way this film is framed, it seems the filmmakers are more enamoured of their selfish characters, more interested in exploring their exploits, than they are in considering the consequences of the sin. What might have been liberating becomes, in the end, merely lurid.

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