With three of his novels jumping to the big screen in the last twelve months, Henry James is this year's Jane Austen. Unlike Austen's light-hearted romances, though, James writes tales of love and deception that break your heart. The Wings of the Dove, the latest James novel to grace the art house circuit, is the best adaptation of his writing to date, putting last year's The Portrait of a Lady to shame.
The film opens with a beautiful scene that takes place in London's tube, blessedly devoid of dialogue, as two young lovers meet on the train. It is 1910, and Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) is in love with Merton Densher (Linus Roache), a middle class newspaperman. He repeatedly asks for her hand in marriage, but she cannot marry him if she wants to continue living in her wealthy aunt's house with her wealthy aunt's checkbook and society contacts. The aunt discovers their secret romance and threatens to cut Kate off if she sees Merton again.
Enter Millie Theale (Alison Elliott), an American orphan worth millions who quickly becomes Kate's best friend while traveling in Europe. Unaware of their romance, Millie sees Merton at a party and expresses interest in him to Kate. The wheels begin to turn in Kate's quick-thinking mind, moving even faster when she discovers that Millie is terminally ill. Midway through the film Millie takes both Kate and Merton to Venice for the summer, where Kate springs her devious, desperate plan on her beloved: Merton should marry Millie and becomes the sole beneficiary of her estate when she falls victim to her disease.
While this may seem to be a cruel trick to perpetrate on a dying girl, it is difficult not to sympathize with both Kate and Millie. The film declines passing judgment on Kate's course of action beyond her tortured thoughts that she will lose Merton to Millie forever, remaining sympathetic to all parties. Bonham Carter (A Room With a View, Mighty Aphrodite) infuses Kate with flashing calculation and undeniable love, conveying the ensuing paranoia she develops upon leaving Merton alone with Millie in Venice with painful perfection, up to and including the penultimate scene of the film. Elliott (The Spitfire Grill), on the other hand, seems to keep Millie at arms length from the audience. She is harder to read than Bonham Carter, but this tactic eventually seems the right choice for the character. Her final scene in the film is heart-breaking, giving credence to the understated way in which she plays Millie in the rest of the film. Roache (Priest), as well, does an excellent job in playing a man tormented by love and loss.
A period piece seems an unlikely choice for director Iain Softley, whose previous two efforts are Backbeat and Hackers, but he directs with a steady hand that is unafraid to make unique shot choices. He uses overhead tracking shots advantageously several times during the film, and the opening sequence is breathtaking. Venice is, as always, a beautiful and rather timeless locale. Judicious use of the London streets keeps the film anchored in 1910 rather than letting it drift into the more familiar (at least to art house audiences) Victorian age or mid-1800s. The costumes also serve as a reminder that this is the early twentieth century, with lovely colors and materials for the women's clothing that seem much more stylish than clothing from just 40 years earlier.
The Wings of the Dove is an excellent film that strives to show how love can destroy as well as sustain, sometimes doing both at once. It successfully tells the story of three people brought together and town apart by love, sympathizing with all of them through beautiful settings, beautiful people, and beautiful acting, a sight that is truly not to be missed. See it, and be drawn into a luscious web of love and intrigue.
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