From the opening shot, of a subway train entering a London station, the latest screen adaptation of Henry James has a keenly contemporary edge. James published The Wings of the Dove in 1902, but British director Iain Softley has pushed the novel’s turn-of-the-century setting ahead to 1910, closer to the dawn of the modern age. He also enlivens the love story with dashes of sex and nudity. He portrays
the characters’ romantic duplicity without any of the author’s moral judgments. And the lucid script, by British writer Hossein Amini (Jude), makes no attempt to mimic the discursive elegance of Jamesian prose: his dialogue is wonderfully lean and cunning.
It might sound like Softley—whose 1994 Backbeat told the story of the fifth Beatle— is vulgarizing an American literary giant. But the director’s loose adaptation does not seem anachronistic. The period costumes and locations are suitably lavish, the score suitably dignified. And the director’s unobtrusive style lets the performances shine.
Of the three recent James adaptations, The Wings of the Dove is the most satisfying—and has the juiciest story. As with The Portrait of a Lady (1996) and the current Washington Square, the intrigue revolves around a woman struggling to reconcile romance with financial independence. Kate
(Helena Bonham Carter), who is supported by a wealthy aunt (Charlotte Rampling), secretly loves a common journalist named Merton (Linus Roache). But if she marries him, her aunt will disown her. Torn between love and social status, Kate sees a way out of her dilemma as she befriends Millie (Alison Elliott), a fabulously wealthy American heiress with a secret of her own—she is dying of cancer. While Millie develops a crush on Merton, Kate quietly conspires to bring them together in the dark hope that, after the ailing woman’s death, she and her
lover might live on Millie’s inheritance.
The drama takes time to gel. But the second half of the story, which unfolds almost entirely in Venice, is enthralling. As the love triangle tightens, and the duplicity deepens, all three characters acquire an aching vulnerability. Merton, the virtuous working man, feels poisoned by compromise. Millie, the innocent American, smiles bravely at death in Venice. Even the devious Kate, with her indecent proposal, seems motivated by a touching mixture of insecurity and passion. And Bonham Carter plays the femme fatale with sensuality, intelligence and poise. For an actress who has spent her career in corsets, this is not just another period movie. With The Wings of the Dove, she takes an unlikely flight into modernity and delivers the most seductive performance of her career.
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