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THE WINGS OF THE DOVE

by: James Berardinelli

When Henry James wrote THE WINGS OF THE DOVE around the turn of the century (he first put pen to paper in 1894; the novel was published eight years later), one of his primary objectives was to dramatize the conflict between the fading morals and traditions of the 19th century and the emerging, "modern" liberality of the 20th century.  The resulting book has been numbered among James' richest and most intriguing works -- a tale that has lost none of its fascination and relevance nearly 100 years later. 

When adapting classic novels (such as THE WINGS OF THE DOVE) into movies, there are generally two approaches that film makers consider.  The first is a straightforward, literal translation that leaves the characters, narrative, and dialogue intact (this can often be a cumbersome approach for a motion picture, unless the source material is short).  The second is to opt for a more "free" adaptation that allows condensation, change, and, in some cases, "modernization."  Sometimes it works (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY), sometimes it doesn't (ANNA KARENINA).  At any rate, the latter method is the one chosen by director Iain Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini for THE WINGS OF THE DOVE.  While leaving the general storyline and basic themes of the novel intact, these two men elected to alter certain key aspects of James' book to make it more cinematic and to give it greater appeal for a 1990s audience.

As might be expected, the basic plot of the movie and the book is the same (although the time line has been shifted by ten years to 1910 in the film).  THE WINGS OF THE DOVE opens with Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) going to live with a wealthy, cultured aunt (Charlotte Rampling) shortly after the death of her mother.  Kate's aunt has every intention of setting up her niece in a comfortable, socially-acceptable marriage.  But Kate, who has fallen in love with Merton Densher (Linus Roache), a poor journalist far below her social station, has other ideas.  But when her aunt threatens to disinherit her if she doesn't break off the illicit relationship, Kate is faced with a moral dilemma.  Her singular solution proves to be damaging to all involved.

Kate befriends a wealthy young American, Milly Theale, who has come to Europe for health reasons.  Milly is seriously ill, and her state of health suggests a plan to Kate, who contrives for Milly to meet Merton.  Soon, Milly is hopelessly in the thrall of the handsome journalist, and, with Kate's aid, Milly makes a play for him while all three are on a holiday in Venice.  It is only then that Merton divines the nature of Kate's plot:  that he should marry Milly for her money, then, upon her death when he would be rich, he could marry Kate. 

THE WINGS OF THE DOVE is very much an actors' film because, although the characters are set down on paper, it's up to the performers to bring them to life.  A viewer's appreciation of the film, with all of its powerful drama and uncomfortable moral questions, depends on his or her acceptance of each of the three principals as unique individuals, not stereotypical "heroes" or "villains."  Kate, who was presented harshly in James' novel, is developed in the movie as a flawed woman trapped between her desire for love and wealth.  And, although her plan is calculated and manipulative, she embarks upon it with deep misgivings and emerges from it with scars that will never fade.  Likewise, Merton, although Kate's reluctant accomplice, shares a portion of the responsibility, since he wants Kate more than anything.  And Milly, who could easily be portrayed as the helpless victim, is given a backbone and strength of personality to go along with her love of life.  She is willing to do just about anything to capture and hold Merton.

The trio of actors in the lead roles all perform effectively, using facial expressions (Softley employs numerous closeups) and body language to highlight the moral

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