The Wings of the Dove - Rated - Simmering

"And I said, O that I had the wings of a dove: for then would I flee away, and be at rest."
- Psalms 55:6.

This is not an easy film. It is easy on the eye, though, and it does go through the romantic motions, even to the extent of having a funeral in Venice, shortly after Carnivale. Venice has never looked more ravishing. The costume design is gorgeous, and the movie looks as if it were designed by Gustav Klimt. It is haunting, puzzling, tragic, cynical. But it is not easy. It requires some careful thought.

It has excellent performances, especially from Helena Bonham Carter (as Kate Croy) and Charlotte Rampling (as Aunt Maude) and, in a small role, the stunning Michael Gambon. Linus Roache (as Merton Densher) is quite effective too, and towards the end of the film he really starts to come into his own. Allison Elliot (as Millie Theale) I'm not so certain about. She conveys intelligence and a certain amount of vitality, but does she do enough to make Linus Roache fall for her? I'm not convinced. It's a pivotal role, and for me, this poor casting made the film weaker than it should be. It really is almost a fatal flaw.

But the ideas behind the story are fascinating, and even if my emotions remained (almost) untouched, my mind was whizzing at a thousand miles an hour. Director Iain Softley and Screenwriter Hossein Amini have updated the story from 1902 to 1910, which I think is a crucial decision. It moves the setting from the tail-end of Victorian England to a more modern milieu, which allows clandestine meetings between lovers (Helena and Linus spend a lot of time on public transport!).

I've thought a lot about this film, and why it didn't move me in the way that, say William Wyler's The Heiress always does (from Henry James's Washington Square ). I think that the decision to set the film in a more modern time creates real problems. It moves the moral weight of the film. Now Kate Croy's predicament and decision seems more of an exercise of free will, more pragmatic, more casual. There's also a sense in which Millie Theale seems to participate in the scheme, allowing Kate to indulge her wish to live life to the full, even at the expense of her friends' future happiness. Kate is portrayed as more sympathetic, and her decision is not as heartless. Merton is just like some pawn in dangerous game, rather than a co-conspiritor. Operating against this is the utterly repellent nature of the plot Kate (and to a lesser extent Merton) hatches, and the cold, calculating way Kate plays the game. It certainly is a tour-de-force performance from Bonham Carter. From this point on the film moves at a leisurely pace, so there is plenty of time to reflect on the characters' base motives, and the depths to which their plan takes them. But the motives have been softened in this film, and so the moral lesson, for me, becomes confused.

Early on in the film, Kate says of her Aunt that she hasn't learned to lie - yet. But of course, this is what Kate, Merton and Millie do from the moment the film opens. And James seems to be telling us that these lies must corrode the soul, even of those who may have good motives for lying. At a party, Lord Mark (Alex Jennings) casually and half-jokingly remarks of Kate that she is corrupt, and that she will corrupt Millie. That she does, but Millie is already doomed. Millie escapes the long and lingering punishment James has reserved for Kate and Merton. Their lie becomes a truth. They will never forget Venice. They can never flee away, to be at rest.

So in the end, it must be James's brilliance that comes to the rescue of this film. His ideas continue to fascinate, even though the film seems to do its best to make Kate and Merton sympathetic. But I feel cheated of the emotional depth, and of the cynical view of humanity that I feel sure is there in James' novel. In fact, I'm going to read the novel straight away to find out what I've missed. Thanks Iain Softley. That's your good deed for the day.