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.
Elliott embodies, to an astonishing extent, what it was about the American maiden that infatuated James: the eyes so modestly downcast one moment, so frankly staring the next; the boldness of address that never congratulates itself on its boldness; a candor that enacts itself with startling truth-telling but never stoops to mere bluntness. (I would venture that Elliott has spent some fruitful hours watching Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith movies.) In her last scenes, the actress even gets at James's peculiar idea of sainthood: a matter not of social action or self-sacrifice or intellectual influence, but an innate glow found only (for James) in American girls looking for love, a glow that reaches, overpowers, and transforms the mere sensual creatures that come into contact with them.
And we see the concussion of this saintliness on Roache's Densher and, even more movingly, on Bonham Carter's Kate. Carter, an actress blessed, or cursed, with a kewpie doll's face and a Brit debutante's diction, seemed to find her talent when she found her anger in Howard's End, railing against injustice. Here, her anger at being turned by her aunt into a commodity on the marriage market makes believable Kate's effort to escape that market by pushing her lover into the heiress's bed (thus turning him into a marketable item!). There is nothing monochromatic about Carter's acting; she is also adept at tenderness and flippancy. But an almost palpable bristling animates and certifies all her work here.
The resplendent solidity of the movie has its drawbacks. These came home to me very early on with a medium shot of Kate being made up by her aunt at a dressing table. Both women are sitting but Kate faces the camera straight on, as motionless as a mannequin, her only movement the widening of her eyes as her aunt lines them with kohl. The older woman leans in, working on the girl's face like an artist finishing a canvas. Expressing the commodification of Kate's beauty and the enslavement of vital but impoverished youth by calcified and moneyed age, the shot is efficient, even memorable. But if you turn to the passage from which this scene is derived, a scant two sentences astonish you with a complexity that is rare in the film (Densher is at a soiree at which he sees Kate perform like an actress and her aunt like a theatrical director):
He struck himself as having lost, for the moment, his presence of mind - so that in any case he only stared in silence at the older woman's technical challenge and at the younger one's disciplined face. It was as if the drama was between them, them quite preponderantly, with Merton Densher relegated to mere spectatorship, a paying place in front, and one of the most expensive.
There we get not only the captivity of the girl but her complicity in it, and the impotence of the idealistic lover and outsider who observes the bond between the two foes. I'm not citing this as an instance of literature's superiority to cinema (a superiority I don't grant), but as an example of the difference between an artist who delves deep and lesser artists who settle for a one-dimensional impact.
On the other hand, the filmmakers do bring out a surprising number of the novel's themes, especially that of the destruction of carnal love through contact with spiritual purity. Disapproval has been expressed about the film's penultimate scene in which Kate bares her body in a desperate effort to keep her lover after Milly's death. There are no naked ladies in Henry James, some critics rather prissily inform us. But it seems to me that the scene conveys with passionate imagery precisely what James expressed in his allusive prose. The poet of Psalm 55 cries out, "O that I had wings like a dove! For then would I flee away" from "the enemy...minded to do me some mischief." But, alas! That enemy is the woman Densher loves, Kate, and the "mischief" she does him is to remind him of the dishonorable designs they had on Milly. The eroticism of the scene is a legitimate expression of the combat of sacred and profane love and, like the entire movie, powerfully narrows and (literally) embodies the last expansive moral lessons of the Master.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Henry James Made Carnal: 'Wings of the Dove.' (Film Review of the Henry James Novel). Contributors: Alleva, Richard - Author. Magazine title: Commonweal. Volume: 124. Issue: 22 Publication date: December 19, 1997. Page number: 15+. © 1999 Commonweal Foundation. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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