'Wings of the Dove' rich, sensual

November 14, 1997|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

Like a moonlit gondola ride, a garnet-red glass of wine or a tryst in the rain, "The Wings of the Dove" is redolent with sensuality, washing away the literary mannerisms of Henry James with fully realized, visually splendid filmmaking.

The adaptation of James' novel still tells a tale of mores and morals, but director Iain Softley has put the emphasis on context and emotion, stripping away some of James' constraints. He has moved the story ahead from 1902 to 1910, placing his characters amid the turmoil of disintegrating social strictures even as the world speeds ahead into a 20th-century age of machines and impulse. The upper classes feel the financial strain as the nouveau riche build industrial empires.

The film opens on the newly electrified London Underground, that noisy, gleaming, shuddering symbol of progress, where Kate (Helena Bonham Carter) and Merton (Linus Roache) exchange smoldering glances in a rail car and then share a passionate embrace in an elevator, going up. But their high passions cannot lift Merton, a journalist, out of his lower-class world into marriage with Kate. Her wealthy aunt (an icy Charlotte Rampling) has taken Kate away from her opium-addict father and is determined to marry her off to a rich suitor.

The couple, therefore, meet secretly, getting drenched in the rain in the park or having warm words in front of a glowing fire in Merton's rooms. Principled and proud, Merton doesn't give a fig about being poor. But Kate's love is not so simple. Her parents wed for love, and their marriage was doomed. She is all too aware of the need for money and too afraid to live without it.

When beautiful, rich American heiress Millie (Alison Elliott) comes to London, she strikes up a friendship with both and unwittingly offers them a terrible opportunity. Millie is gravely ill, and Kate realizes that marrying this angelic woman off to Merton would allow Kate, in the end, to inherit both love and money. But can she ask Merton to do such a thing without changing both him and his opinion of her?

DTC Kate is not a simple villain. She cares for Millie, as does Merton, and the trio's trip to Venice is full of enchantment even as it simmers with jealousy and desire. Venice feels older than London, filled as it is with watery passages and Renaissance art, holy figures staring out from the walls of churches. Millie resembles these saints even as she resembles the red-haired sirens in Gustav Klimt's paintings, which they saw in London; she is everything Kate and Merton want and everything they could be.

Hossein Amini's screenplay tells the story more through actions and pictures than through words, lending subtlety to the characters' transformations. All of the actors are accomplished, not to mention beautiful; costume-drama veteran Bonham Carter conveys steel and seduction in a glance, while Roache ("Priest") displays an earnestness that quavers under the pressures of lust and loyalty. Elliott ("The Spitfire Grill," "The Buccaneers"), who has less to work with than her fellow actors, gives a hint of a spark to pure-hearted Millie.

Despite the great canvas of England and Venice on which Softley paints the story, it remains intimate and therefore disturbing. Its strength lies in its characters' thought-provoking ambiguity.

'The Wings of the Dove'

Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache and Alison Elliott

Directed by Iain Softley

Released by Miramax

Rated R (nudity, sex)

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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