Adapted from Henry James’ 1902 novel, The Wings of the Dove (Miramax) has a lush yet aching beauty that seems to saturate you as you watch it. I’m not just talking about visual beauty. I’m speaking of dramatic beauty, the exquisite moment-to-moment tension of characters who reveal themselves layer by layer, flowing from thought to feeling and back again, until thought and feeling become drama. Director Iain Softley (BackBeat) has made one of the rare movies that evokes not just the essence of a great novel but the experience of it. In some ways, this is undeniably a ”modernization” of James (a nude scene makes his underlying sensuality powerfully explicit), yet we are also enveloped, at every turn, in the hidden pulse of his characters’ motivating passions. The Wings of the Dove is, I think, a great film — the finest ”Masterpiece Theatre movie” ever made.
Helena Bonham Carter has always been an earnest yet curiously remote actress, but from the moment you see her here, she has a new, dark-toned womanly radiance. As Kate Croy, Bonham Carter does full justice to a heroine who loves helplessly and deeply — so deeply that she’s willing to become a scoundrel out of that love. We’re in London in 1910, and Kate, the ward of her manipulative rich aunt (Charlotte Rampling), is enmeshed in a passionate but secret involvement with Merton Densher (Linus Roache, from Priest), a handsome journalist possessed of wit, devotion, a fierce commitment to his ideals — everything but money. A marriage for these two is, thus, out of the question. If Kate were simply a gold digger, it would be easy to write her off. But the necessity of material well-being is no mere luxury here. It’s the edifice on which this world stands, and thus we follow Kate into an eerily ”justified” form of treachery.
Kate has befriended Millie (Alison Elliott), a sweet, trusting American heiress who takes a shine to Merton, having no idea he and Kate have been together. What Kate doesn’t know — yet — is that Millie is dying. When she learns this, a scheme forms: She and Merton will accompany Millie to Venice, where Merton will woo her, providing the woman some romantic comfort in her last days and, not so incidentally, winning her fortune.
A forgivable plan? A dastardly one? The elusive power of The Wings of the Dove derives from the way it embraces moral judgments and then transcends them. For it is Merton’s mysterious fate not so much to fall in love with Millie as to fall in love with her in death, to be suffused in one breath with pity and ardor. The way this plays out is at once tender and cruel, ineffable and heartbreaking. The Wings of the Dove is a film that confirms the arrival of major screen talents: director Softley, who works with sublime sensitivity to the intricacies of self-deception; Bonham Carter and Roache, who create a dazzlingly intimate chemistry within the propriety of Jamesian manners; and The Spitfire Grill’s Alison Elliott, who, with her beatific charm and Mona Lisa smile, does one of the most difficult things an actress can — she brings goodness itself to life. A