Henry James Made Carnal: 'Wings of the Dove.' (Film Review of the Henry James Novel)

By Alleva, Richard | Commonweal, December 19, 1997 | Go to article overview

Henry James Made Carnal: 'Wings of the Dove.' (Film Review of the Henry James Novel)


Alleva, Richard, Commonweal


The final fictions of Henry James are royal works of art, but royalty can be exasperating. My loving quarrel with The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and The Ambassadors is about the way a mist or fog seems so often to envelop the characters and settings. Out of the mist comes, often thrillingly, the thoughts of the protagonists, their ethical struggles, their formidable efforts to discern the motives of others. But I have terrible difficulty in seeing the characters themselves - their faces, bodies, glances, gestures. James may repeatedly tell us that Kate Croy is "the handsome girl," but her specific handsomeness never quite meets the inward eye. Joyce went much further with stream-of-consciousness than James, but one always sees or feels the sturdiness of Bloom, the voluptuousness of Molly, the angularity of Stephen. Did James, who earlier portrayed people so vividly, so visually in The Bostonians and Washington Square, grow tired in his later years of the animality of human beings?

Well, there is no such thing as an immaterial movie, though there may be austere and highly spiritual ones, such as The Passion of Joan of Arc. Even mist becomes a solid entity when captured on film. How then could such a truly ethereal book as The Wings of the Dove be turned into a film?

And the answer is: with boldness, with taste, with more than a pinch of sensationalism, and with a drastic narrowing of scope.

To be sure, the script by Hossein Amini is faithful enough to the novel's plot even though it pushes the fin-de-siecle period ten years forward, with dialogue that cleverly foreshadows the snappiness of the Jazz Age while retaining vestiges of Victorian restraint. (James's later fiction does straddle the Victorian period and modernism, so the stylistic blend is apt.) As in the book, Kate Croy, kept from marrying impecunious Merton Densher by a purseproud aunt, puts her lover on the scent of the dying millionairess Milly Theale, so that the frustrated British lovers may get those millions when the American heiress succumbs. But what glamorous solidities this trio now inhabits! The dinner parties with the camera gliding above table and guests, golden sunlight streaming on London parks, equally glamorous gloom seeping through bookshop windows, the Venetian canals made of blue velvet on which glide gondolas containing giddy lovers whose voices ring out against the stones of overarching bridges: paragraphs and pages of painstaking analysis of motivation and intention have been supplanted on screen by the pleasures of travelogue.

And wherever James was airily vague, the director, Iain Softley, is hardheaded and specific. Kate's father slouches now under no nameless disgrace but is revealed in an opium den smoking dope with a trollop. The great physician Sir Luke Strett no long benevolently beams at his patient during the vaguest medical examination in literary history but gives Milly the most up-to-date radiation treatments that 1910 could provide. James worried at the quiddity of emotions; lain Softley rejoices in the thinginess of things.

And, needless to add, in the sexiness of sex. In his introduction to the new Everyman edition of the novel, Grey Gowrie calls The Wings "James's most erotic novel" and even something of a "bodiceripper." I think he exaggerated in order to entice readers, but there's no denying that Softley and Amini have, indeed, made an intellectual bodice-ripper. Densher and Kate now claw at each other on an ascending elevator as if they were in Fatal Attraction, copulate in a Venetian alleyway, and have a final tryst which I will have more to say about anon.

The entire cast is admirable and two of the three leads are memorable. Linus Roache, with his fragile chin and piercing eyes, captures very well Densher's basic decency not quite smothered by pusillanimity, but any unfortunate actor assigned this role must contend with the fact that James fell in love with his heroines, and it is they who cry out for the magnetism here amply supplied by Allison Elliott as Milly and Helena Bonham Carter as Kate. …

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