The Wings of the Dove
directed by Iain Softley
(Miramax, 1997)

Life wasn't easy for women in the time of novelist Henry James.

Even if their mentors managed to arrange a fortuitous marriage for them, there was a good chance they'd die of boredom, either from the marriage or from reading James' novels.

All the more reason, then, to marvel at The Wings of the Dove, Iain Softley's 1997 film based on the James novel of the same name.

Softley, with the aid of Helena Bonham Carter, achieves the near impossible: depicting the lives of boring people without boring the audience.

The most boring of these boring people is an English lord, Lord Mark (Alex Jennings), a full-time drunk and a part-time suitor to Kate Croy (Carter), a penniless woman who will nevertheless bring a rich dowry to the man she marries, thanks to her Aunt Maud (Charlotte Rampling), who has rescued her -- maybe -- from the household of her penniless father (Michael Gambon).

But Kate doesn't want to marry Lord Mark, even if it means he'll have to close down his favorite castle. Kate's in love with Merton Densher, an (ugh) commoner she knows from her pre-society days. Densher (Linus Roache) is as poor as he is handsome, a common combination among video reviewers, and Aunt Maud finds him totally unacceptable: His heart may be in the right place, but it doesn't pump blue blood.

Things seem hopeless for Kate and Merton until Kate is befriended by a young American heiress (Alison Elliott) who's dying of something people usually only catch in Bergman films. Slowly, Kate devises a plan that makes the D-Day invasion look subtle: Merton is to seduce the heiress, assuring him top spot in her will, then as a worthy suitor, ask for Kate's hand in marriage.

If Wings of the Dove were a Hitchcock film, this would all be carried off with devilish glee and unforgettable dialogue, delivered, no doubt, on or near some national monument. But Softley remains true to James. The film is set in opulent England and sensuous Venice. And the tone remains ominous throughout, even in the midst of a Venetian carnival.

Better yet, the story is told primarily in furtive glances and clipped conversations. Softley never falls into the kinds of lengthy speeches or tract-like voice-over narratives that can make films of James' novels unbearably long and unnecessarily repetitious.

Instead, the director carves a series of succinct images -- Lord Mark drunkenly shooting at a rabbit in the courtyard of his own castle, Kate stretching across Merton's bed, the heiress standing on a balcony overlooking the piazza of San Marco and watching the people cross it two by two -- and lets James' characters tell James' story.

Best of all, Softley shows us just enough about the bad guys to make us think they might be on to something, and just enough about the good guys to make us question our perception of them as better than the bad guys.

That allows him to tell James' story of class warfare the way it should be told. With lots of class.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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