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The Wings of the Dove

Directed by Iain Softley. Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache, Alison Elliott, Charlotte Rampling, Elizabeth Mcgovern, Michael Gambon. (1997, R, 103 min.)

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 21, 1997

The Wings of the Dove is yet another in a long line of recent films that seem as though they should carry the Merchant/Ivory banner, but don't. Is this the inevitable backlash against Joel Schumacher and Batmans I-V? I like to think so, but I suppose it doesn't matter. Any film without a gun in the first act is a rarity along the lines of tasty government cheese; we should be thankful. Adapted from Henry James' 1902 novel, The Wings of the Dove is one of those stories that gets tagged with the annoying label of “timeless.” Nonsense -- the only reason James is being brought to the screen so frantically of late (Washington Square, et al.) is that the national supply of Jane Austen is running thin, and we have to have something without Bruce Willis up there. James' tale follows the apparently doomed love of Kate Croy (Bonham Carter), society matron-to-be, and ne'er-do-well journalist Merton Densher (Roache). It's turn-of-the-century London, and proper young ladies don't go about consorting with such lesser creatures as writers. Though Kate will have none of it, her stern and exceedingly wealthy Aunt Maude will have none of it either, and expressly forbids the nascent relationship to go a single step further. Never underestimate the wiliness of young girls in love. At a society ball hosted by her aunt, Kate meets American heiress Millie Theale (Elliott), who has encamped in London while waiting to die from some dreadful and unnamed illness. In Millie, Kate sees everything she desires to be: wealthy, yes, but also spontaneous, loving, and ribald. When the beautifully peaked Millie takes a shine to Merton, Kate and her beau hatch a plan that, essentially, allows the dying American to fall in love with Merton -- and possibly vice versa -- in the hopes of securing a place in her sizable will and therefore breaking free of the constraints of Aunt Maude. It seems a perfectly horrible plan at first glance, but Millie give intimations that she knows what's going on all along. She just wants one last true love before the grave, and to hell with how it comes about. Director Softley is a master stylist; from the popcorn techno-thrills of Hackers to his freshmen take on the Beatles in Backbeat, he's among the best when it comes to creating whole worlds out of thin celluloid, and The Wings of the Dove is no different. Achingly gorgeous in almost all respects, the film soars in its period depiction of turn-of-the-century London (and later in Venice, as well), from costuming to cinematography on down. Carter, Roache, and especially Elliott give their all, and though the feisty, feminist Kate may seem a purely modern creation, it's James' all the way. Condensing a 500-page novel into a two-hour span tends to result in some things being left out, and occasionally Softley's film feels rushed. There are questions left hanging that never quite get resolved to anyone's satisfaction, but the director -- and cast -- almost manage to override them with the sheer beauty on the screen (not to mention a particularly un-Jamesian nude scene toward the end. It's not quite Howards End, but then neither is it Clueless, and for that I'm thankful.
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