The Wings of the Dove -
Rated - Simmering
"And I said, O that I had the wings of a dove: for then would I flee
away, and be at rest."
- Psalms 55:6.
This is not an easy film. It is easy on the eye, though, and it does go
through the romantic motions, even to the extent of having a funeral in
Venice, shortly after Carnivale. Venice has never looked more
ravishing. The costume design is gorgeous, and the movie looks as if it
were designed by Gustav Klimt. It is haunting, puzzling, tragic,
cynical. But it is not easy. It requires some careful thought.
It has excellent performances, especially from Helena Bonham Carter (as
Kate Croy) and Charlotte Rampling (as Aunt Maude) and, in a small role,
the stunning Michael Gambon. Linus Roache (as Merton Densher) is quite
effective too, and towards the end of the film he really starts to come
into his own. Allison Elliot (as Millie Theale) I'm not so certain
about. She conveys intelligence and a certain amount of vitality, but
does she do enough to make Linus Roache fall for her? I'm not
convinced. It's a pivotal role, and for me, this poor casting made the
film weaker than it should be. It really is almost a fatal flaw.
But the ideas behind the story are fascinating, and even if my emotions
remained (almost) untouched, my mind was whizzing at a thousand miles
an hour. Director Iain Softley and Screenwriter Hossein Amini have
updated the story from 1902 to 1910, which I think is a crucial
decision. It moves the setting from the tail-end of Victorian England
to a more modern milieu, which allows clandestine meetings between
lovers (Helena and Linus spend a lot of time on public transport!).
I've thought a lot about this film, and why it didn't move me in the
way that, say William Wyler's The Heiress always does (from Henry
James's Washington Square ). I think that the decision to set the film
in a more modern time creates real problems. It moves the moral weight
of the film. Now Kate Croy's predicament and decision seems more of an
exercise of free will, more pragmatic, more casual. There's also a
sense in which Millie Theale seems to participate in the scheme,
allowing Kate to indulge her wish to live life to the full, even at the
expense of her friends' future happiness. Kate is portrayed as more
sympathetic, and her decision is not as heartless. Merton is just like
some pawn in dangerous game, rather than a co-conspiritor. Operating
against this is the utterly repellent nature of the plot Kate (and to a
lesser extent Merton) hatches, and the cold, calculating way Kate plays
the game. It certainly is a tour-de-force performance from Bonham
Carter. From this point on the film moves at a leisurely pace, so there
is plenty of time to reflect on the characters' base motives, and the
depths to which their plan takes them. But the motives have been
softened in this film, and so the moral lesson, for me, becomes
Early on in the film, Kate says of her Aunt that she hasn't learned to
lie - yet. But of course, this is what Kate, Merton and Millie do from
the moment the film opens. And James seems to be telling us that these
lies must corrode the soul, even of those who may have good motives for
lying. At a party, Lord Mark (Alex Jennings) casually and half-jokingly
remarks of Kate that she is corrupt, and that she will corrupt Millie.
That she does, but Millie is already doomed. Millie escapes the long
and lingering punishment James has reserved for Kate and Merton. Their
lie becomes a truth. They will never forget Venice. They can never flee
away, to be at rest.
So in the end, it must be James's brilliance that comes to the rescue
of this film. His ideas continue to fascinate, even though the film
seems to do its best to make Kate and Merton sympathetic. But I feel
cheated of the emotional depth, and of the cynical view of humanity
that I feel sure is there in James' novel. In fact, I'm going to read
the novel straight away to find out what I've missed. Thanks Iain
Softley. That's your good deed for the day.