James and the Giant Breach

Breaking With Tradition: Alison Elliott and Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove.

The Wings of the Dove
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

TWO LOVERS DEFY class and convention. Their meetings are both erratic and erotic. At one point, the woman finds the man at a party with someone else. She calls him up to the billiard room. She lands a sad and powerful smooch on his lips. Then she orders him to "go back down and kiss her with that mouth."

This is a story from Henry James? The withdrawn and wordy master of drawing-room tensions? Of course it is; apart from his exceedingly fine-tuned observations about people's speech, social station, and appearance, James also knew how to lay the foundation of story through character. And The Wings of the Dove foregrounds that sense of character and plot. Maybe these people are more brazen on film than James would have them, but they are intensely established as driven--and potentially doomed. In other words, they're full, rich characters.

The woman is Kate (Helena Bonham Carter), whose social origins are respectable but whose family (especially her opium-addicted father) has tarnished them. The man is Merton (Linus Roache), a decent, working journalist by present standards but, in 1910 (and within Kate's larger world), an ill-fitting companion. Class and money are the major problems here: Kate, who's supported by her prominent and tradition-bound aunt (Charlotte Rampling), should behave as if she has money but would rather not. If she chooses Merton, she loses her income.

As in not only the other James adaptations (Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady) and the older Merchant-Ivory films (The Bostonians and The Europeans) but the Jane Austen ones as well (Sense and Sensibility et al.), women apparently don't exist without a man and some money. And rather than fiddle around with coy but discreet flirtations and misunderstandings (as the Austen stories do), this one gives Kate a clear but morally dangerous opportunity. It is in the form of Milly (Alison Elliott), the "world's richest orphan," a guileless American who arrives in London amid much glory but with a secret as well.

Milly is dying. Kate's snotty friend Lord Mark (Alex Jennings) tells her this secret, and in his wish to marry Milly for her money, Kate gets the same idea. At the same time, Milly meets Merton--at the same party with the billiard-room smooch--and realizes she loves him. What ensues could be genteel yet tragic, since these people genuinely like each other, but in the hands of director Iain Softley (Backbeat), it becomes instead impulsive, emotionally inevitable, and far more poignant. Milly calls both Kate and Merton to Venice, where amid the significant decay and splendor Merton proceeds with Kate's plot to marry Milly, against his better judgment. Softley has said elsewhere that he sees this plot as very close to film noir, and he's right. Everyone is both haunted and passionate, overdosed on moral conflict.

Plot summary barely does justice to this movie, because it is so competently realized in all other respects. Performance is a key; for all their randy energy, Kate and Merton are both hobbled by remorse and erotic dread, while Milly is pure innocence, comfortable in her material isolation. Compared to other prop-happy period dramas, the settings and comforts (or lack of them) are mere backgrounds to more compelling behavior. Softley also finds inspiration in art history: Not only do Kate, Milly, and Merton meet at a Gustav Klimt exhibition, but Milly in particular seems defined by compositions and lighting derived from John Singer Sargent. The contrast between the sexually obsessed Viennese--with his gold-leaf accents framing physically distorted love tableaux--and the more proper (though still ironic) portraitist of American society couldn't be more powerful.

Where the movie departs most from James in its brisk impulsiveness. An active sensuality he could only hint at in prose is everywhere on-screen: Kate guides her friends to an especially frank Klimt painting, and she and Milly browse erotic books, giggling; Lord Mark throws a "Turkish" party in a deeply turquoise salon; Milly herself calls Merton "beautiful." Maybe the slim Roache isn't every woman's idea of a love (or lust) companion, but the way he gives in to both sex and friendship suggests that he too is a victim of desire. The story's conclusion does rely, after all, on whether he loved Milly as she loved him--and whether that love was different from what he has with Kate.

This current mini-boom of Henry James adaptations is a welcome thing, regardless of how pure you may want your literary movies. Like Shakespeare, James found infinite nuances in human behavior, and good interpretations can't help but to bring those out. The Wings of the Dove has no overtly wicked figures like those in Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady, and its characters' willfulness is not so high-toned as in Agnieszka Holland's wonderful Washington Square. Instead, as good adaptations often do, this movie tells a story from the past in terms of the present--of trapped people, neither uniquely evil nor good.

 
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