This handsomely produced Miramax release renders one of Henry James' lesser novels into a mostly satisfying romantic melodrama which, with its colorful settings in London and Venice soon after the turn of this century, and its passionate female characters, is likely to do decent mid-range business with a lengthy ancillary shelf life.

This handsomely produced Miramax release renders one of Henry James’ lesser novels into a mostly satisfying romantic melodrama which, with its colorful settings in London and Venice soon after the turn of this century, and its passionate female characters, is likely to do decent mid-range business with a lengthy ancillary shelf life. Set for Stateside release in November, a month after the James-based “Washington Square” from Disney, this one should perform better than the previous James adapta-tion, Jane Campion’s “The Portrait of a Lady.”

Like other works by James, “Dove” explores the clash between the 19th-century values of the aristocracy and the more “modern” 20th-century aspirations of its principal protagonists. These are mostly embodied in the character of the willful Kate, who is born to the nobility but is romantically attached to a member of the lower classes. The character gives Helena Bonham Carter one of her best opportunities in a while, one which she seizes with relish, looking vibrant and totally convincing in her pivotal role.

It’s 1910, and Kate has been living with her dissolute father (Michael Gambon), an opium addict, since her mother’s death. She’s taken in hand by her imperious, deeply conservative Aunt Maud (Charlotte Rampling), who is determined to find her niece a place in high society, probably as the wife of the arrogant Lord Mark (Alex Jennings). Kate, however, has other ideas. Though the thought of money and social position is attractive to her, she’s in love with Merton Densher (Linus Roache), an impoverished journalist. Avoiding her aunt’s watchful eye, Kate meets Merton whenever she can.

The arrival of Millie (Alison Elliott) offers the clandestine lovers new opportunities. Millie is a typical James character, a fabulously wealthy and beautiful young orphaned American who is touring Europe and who is accepted everywhere in society (as Maud remarks, she’d be Queen of America if they had one). Millie, who possesses a healthy American lack of snobbishness, befriends Kate and, when she meets Merton, is obviously attracted to him, not knowing his involvement with her new friend. Discovering that Millie is terminally ill, Kate decides, during a trip to Venice, to push Merton into the rich woman’s arms in order to make him, eventually, a widower of social standing.

Hossein Amini’s adaptation of the book seems geared as far as possible to popular taste; the characters are driven by very contemporary needs and passions, and the bitter climax is carefully prepared. Kate’s romanticism is allied to her deviousness (as Lord Mark comments, “There’s far too much going on behind those pretty eyelashes”), and Bonham Carter captures with consid-erable precision the shifting moods of the character.

Roache makes Merton rather too vacillating and feeble a character, and both his love scenes have him in an entirely submis-sive position; it’s hard to figure what makes Merton so attractive to these two stunning women.

Elliott shines as the American who enlivens the lives of these jaded Euros, while Rampling and Jennings elegantly etch the self-important aristocrats with chilling venom. Gambon has little more than a cameo as Kate’s ravaged dad, and Elizabeth McGovern hasn’t much to do as Millie’s companion.

Visually the film impresses, with Eduardo Serra’s widescreen camerawork evocatively capturing the streets and interiors of London and a rain-swept Venice. Pacing is crisp, with little time wasted on inessentials. Dialogue is often caustically witty, and the relations clearly delineated.

This is something of a comeback for British director Iain Softley, who impressed with his Beatles yarn “Backbeat” (1993) but who disappointed many with his sophomore outing, “Hackers” (1995). “The Wings of the Dove” may be typical of the school of British literary cinema, but Softley’s handling of several key elements, including an unusually frank love scene in the later stages, is always inventive. Production values are of the highest standard.

The Wings of the Dove

British

Production

A Miramax release of a Renaissance Dove production. Produced by David Parfitt, Stephen Evans. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Paul Feldsher. Directed by Iain Softley.

Crew

Screenplay, Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Henry James. Camera (Rank color, Arri wide-screen), Eduardo Serra; editor, Tariq Anwar; music, Gabriel Yared; production design, John Beart; art direction, Martyn John; costumes, Sandy Powell; sound (Dolby digital), Sallie Jaye; assistant director, Simon Moseley; casting, Michele Guish. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (British Renaissance), Sept. 4, 1997. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Kate - Helena Bonham Carter Merton Densher - Linus Roache Millie - Alison Elliott Susan - Elizabeth McGovern Aunt Maud - Charlotte Rampling Lord Mark - Alex Jennings Kate's father - Michael Gambon

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