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Movie Review: The Wings of the Dove -- Love or money -- and a girl's scheme to get both

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

British director Iain Softley's two previous movies were Backbeat, about the Beatles, and Hackers, about computer nerds. His latest, The Wings of the Dove, is a period piece, based on the novel by Henry James (who is a classical novelist du jour, replacing Jane Austen). This unusual pairing of a classical novel and a director with a feel for the period does wonders, just as it did when Martin Scorsese used his cinematic style to great effect on Edith Wharton's novel The Age Of Innocence.

The Wings of the Dove is, at least on one level, an action movie - a ruthless, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners battle between the 19th and 20th centuries. The main conflict is set starting from the opening sequence, when the film's protagonist Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter), dressed in an elaborate costume, descends into the London subway. The contrast is jarring: Kate looks like she just stepped from an old painting, and the subway (the year is 1910) looks as grimy and crowded as today, almost a hundred years later. This scene puts the two worlds into a head-on collision, and it's this collision that makes the story.

With her mother dead and father a hopeless opium addict, Kate is taken in by wealthy aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), under whose guidance she enters the fashionable high-class circles. But Kate has a secret: she's in love with a commoner, a handsome and clever - but poor - journalist Merton Densher (Linus Roache). This doesn't suit aunt Maude, who would rather see Kate married to some rich lord. Since Kate has no fortune of her own, she is facing a difficult choice: Merton or money. Then a young, pretty, lonely, and very rich American girl, Millie Theale (Alison Elliott), arrives on the scene and makes friends with both Kate and Merton. Soon Kate invents a plan which can bring to all three of them what they need most, be it love or money.

The first hour of the movie takes place in London, which was meticulously recreated and looks fabulous (this, by the way, applies to all aspects to the movie: sets, costumes, and cinematography are very impressive by themselves, but when combined, the impression is nothing short of jaw-dropping). Then Kate, Merton, and Millie go to Venice, and the movie changes, just like its setting; the pace becomes slower and more relaxed, which is perhaps necessary because the characters become even more multi-faceted and their interactions are grippingly complex. It is in Venice that the three characters turn both compassionate and cruel toward each other.

The acting is fantastic. Linus Roache conveys Merton's passion and understanding; Alison Elliott gives Millie internal strength and determination. Helena Bonham Carter is the familiar face in costume dramas (Mel Gibson's Hamlet, A Room With A View, Howards End), but here she does much more than just rely on her strikingly wide-eyed appearance. Kate, frankly speaking, is a jealous, bitter, greedy, and manipulative shrew ("You mean, a bitch?", as Bonham Carter puts it herself); and yet, the actress gives such an emotional and emphatic performance that the finale feels truly heartbreaking.

What else can I say to convince you to see it? The music is lovely. The scenes set in Venice make you feel almost like being there. The movie is both sensuous and romantic (the rumors of an extended nude scene in the end are entirely true). Along with L.A. Confidential, it is one of the best movies of 1997. Along with The Age Of Innocence, it is one of the best period dramas ever filmed.

Directed by Iain Softley

Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache, Alison Elliott, Elizabeth McGovern, Charlotte Rampling, Alex Jennings, and Michael Gambon

Written by Henry James (novel), and Hossein Amini