Directed by Iain Softley
Adapted by Hossein Amini from the novel by Henry James
Review by Adam Gallari
Period pieces: we love them, we hate them, we love to hate them and hate to love them. They are guilty pleasures, atavistic indulgences, a voyeurism into a time we want to assume was better, grander than our own, yet one we simultaneously feel the need to debase in order to show how we have since moved on, matured, evolved into a better, more rounded people. Some have and will argue that the period piece is nothing more than a crutch, window dressing for a plot and conflict that might fall flat in a contemporary setting, while others maintain they are essential, if only to prove that human nature, for better or for worse, might pretend to evolve but that it never truly does.
I first saw The Wings of the Dove in 2009, over a decade after it debuted in cinemas in 1997. I was coming to the end of my master’s degree and looking for things to do that would allow me to decompress while simultaneously fooling myself into believing that I was still working. By that point in time, too, I wanted desperately out of Southern California. The burnout of a master’s coupled with the Groundhog Day nature of living in a place where every day was 80 and sunny had taken its toll, so I retreated into films that might serve to mirror the themes and tropes I’d been battling for the previous two years.
The Wings of the Dove was one of the last films in this series, and on the surface it was a relatively simple and familiar tale of a love triangle, conventions and impasses—something ripe for the rise of cliché and melodrama, but this was not to be the case. The film, which moves between London and Venice in 1910, is a relatively faithful adaptation to the Henry James novel on which it is based, and seemed to fly in the face of all the understood notions of what a period piece should be. Yes, its cinematography was grand and sweeping in scope; yes, the costumes were baroque and regal, but its main difference was that it refused to pander to a time gone by. Refused to treat it with the kid gloves, because it wasn’t a film about a time but rather about people who, by nothing more than the chances of fate, happened to live during it. It respected its characters, and while other period pieces often attempt to prove their authenticity by how antiquated they can make their dialogue and syntax, The Wings of the Dove was stark and quiet. Offering only snippets of speech, only when they were necessary and with a biting and violent pith. The world was conveyed in the images and in the stilted action; the dialogue didn’t need to pretend to it. This decision, one of the many for which Hossein Amini (whose screenplay was nominated for an Oscar) should be applauded because, for all of his skills at narrative and introspection, James is a notoriously bad writer of dialogue en masse.
But what I found most impressive about The Wings of the Dove was how it managed to plot the decay of human morality in such a subtle, understated way. At their core both the book and the movie are about the devolution of a psyche; we watch, helplessly, as people once restrained and proper, go mad, à la Luis Buñuel’s 1952 El, but in a much more realistic way, social ascent in direct proportion to plummeting conscience.
To say the beauty of film is that it is a visual medium might seem like the most obvious, puerile assessment one could make regarding the art form, yet it is exactly this aspect that I love most about it. The inability of an audience to access a character’s interiority thrills me, since, as a writer of prose, it is the interior where I dwell. I guide thinking. I manipulate via language. Every sentence, every word, every action and nuance is a crisis of consciousness, a thought made manifest through its presentation on the page, but no matter how greatly or how well I might direct reflection or deliberation, it can never, truly, be visual. It can never be as immediate as film, and, with the exception of Woody Allen on his best days, it is rare, very, very rare, that the interior is made manifest on screen through actual speech that doesn’t reek of the solipsistic and over-indulgent, or isn’t besmirched by saccharine self-help mantra.
(Insert Eat, Pray, Love joke here.)
I do not pretend to know much about the formulaic elements of filmmaking and cinematography. I do not have a firm grasp on the traditions which modern directors are following nor the trajectories which they champion or from which to they choose to deviate, and I assume that my reasons for loving certain films in recent years would smack of sacrilege to most educated students of cinema, but from Brad Pitt’s sociopathic smile in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to Scarlett Johannson’s constant lip-biting in Lost in Translation, there is nothing I like more than watching a character think and move and be, without having direct access to their psyche. It is truer this way, and when done well arguably the highest form of mimesis.
Those familiar with Henry James will know that, if anything, he is a thinking author. To some, this is his greatest weakness, that he is too cerebral, too concerned with the internal landscape and the minutiae of the obscure. His late works especially are magnificent chores, works that ultimately pave the way for Woolf and Joyce, but which do not immediately scream ‘Adapt-me-now’ to any but the most masochistic of screenwriters who, upon undertaking the task, will find themselves needing to condense page after page after page of internal reflection and dense self-exploration into:
INT. APARTMENT, LONDON -- DAY
Merton Densher stands in front of a fire holding a letter…
What is communicated in the screenplay will only and can only scratch the surface of what is offered by the prose, and if executed half-heartedly will result in a banal and half-hearted ennui. but Amini manages to capture all the moral ambiguity and ambivalence to codes of propriety and human conduct that James places in the book. It feels modern, this century old tale, that might be described as what Anna Karenina might have been were Tolstoy an expatriated American enraptured with the British mode of tragedy.
Yet what I find myself most enthralled by in this movie, what becomes more and more intoxicating as I study it in my own way, is Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Kate Croy, the duplicitous and stark catalyst of the novel. She manages to commune with the character James renders on the page despite the fact that for James she is all mind. Unlike her role in the novel, which equally splits off between the three key players, Croy, Merton Densher and Millie Theale, Carter’s Croy becomes the fixed point around which we pivot, an innocent slowly corrupted and jaded by a society that has adopted her, but one that she begins to view as solely utilitarian. Her metamorphosis in dress, stature and ignominy is tracked by her face. She seems to age before us, yet even at her most powerful of moments she is undercut by her own insecurities—her tragedy is in inbred one, she cannot escape the fact that no matter how hard she might try to assimilate, no matter how well she might look the part, she will never full blend into the gilded society. She is not of that world and can never be.
It is her face that makes the film. It is a face one cannot tire of watching because it is a landscape, an ever-shifting one that is haunting, erotic, malevolent and fragile. That she might carry an entire scene’s turn by the way she purses her lips or that a jawline might capture the essence of an Empire is an absurd proposition, and yet each of her movements in informed by the gravitas of one standing on a ledge unsure as whether to advance out into the air or retreat onto the roof.
Her performance recalls some of the best femme fatales of Hollywood’s by-gone noir years, and one wonders if, in a way, Carter missed her true calling—to stand alongside the likes of Crawford and Stanwyck as they plotted downfalls from the shadowy corners of gin and smoke filled rooms. In its own way, too, The Wings of the Dove recalls certain noir qualities. Densher’s battles between Kate (Carter), whom he professes to love, and Millie (Alison Elliott), the dying American heiress whom it is his job to seduce but to whom he is invariably drawn, fall into the quintessential noir dichotomy between the “light” and “dark” woman. Millie is fair, innocent, blonde. She dresses constantly in pastels. It is the simple things in life she most values. There is not a cynical bone in her body, though she knows that she will not live long, whereas Kate is conniving, plotting and clad primarily in black throughout the film. She both sets in motion and finalizes the action of the plot as executioner in absentia.
Carter’s Croy is a woman we loathe and love simultaneously, whose Machiavellian nature is born of a profound longing and pain. But where she outpaces even the best noir roles, is that unlike the great women of noir she is not solely an allegory. She is not the embodiment of evil, rather she humanizes it, showcases in her own way Arendt’s notion of its banality, and articulates how reason, the very quality that separates us from animals, can debase us in a way alien to the natural world. Animals do not possess an instinct for cruelty, let alone the ability to rationalize it. And despite this, despite my own reason and rationality and mores, each time I watch her lift her gaze or shift the angle of her neck I am seduced by her more.
It is the ending, though, the penultimate and ultimate scenes of the film, though, where The Wings of the Dove takes its cue more from noir than from the James novel. The penultimate, a love scene in which Kate climbs into Densher’s bed and lays in a pose similar to the odalisque painting shown when Millie and Densher officially meet, is stunning and perfect and should have been the final scene in the film. The majority of it comprises her face, a distant gaze in her eyes as she loves Densher as if trying to command, to believe that with each thrust and gyration she can still claim him as her own, though through her eyes we can tell that she knows instead he is slipping further and further from her. He barely appears in the scene, almost proof that the scene could continue without him in the room. It is gut-wrenching to watch, these loves, even though we have watched them do everything in their power to (in)directly murder another, lay next to each other after the act has run its course both tacitly knowing that though there plan has succeeded it has brought with it nothing of benefit.
The final conversation parallels James’ actual closing dialogue, which I will not spoil here, but then inexplicably we are on Densher in Venice, accompanied by Millie’s voiceover and the notion that he has returned to the “light” woman, the right woman—that he has indeed chosen correctly. It is incomprehensible, forced and flawed, so obviously tacked on so that we might be finally allowed the moral compass the film has never overtly offered. It is too proscriptive, this idea that Densher has retained his humanity while Kate has jettisoned hers. The book never offers such a clean end; it does not debase Kate in such a way; rather the book shows that she is the perspicuous one, the one still haunted by conscience, and because of this I choose to believe the movie ends on the last shot of her face, worn and broken and drained yet still refusing to fully acknowledge that she is the architect of her own misery. It is a face I have tried to write many times and always failed to fully articulate, for never have I been able to project such passionate yet icy vulnerability. I am in love with that face. I am haunted by that face.
Originally from New York, Adam Gallari attended Vassar College and received his MFA from the University of California, Riverside. Currently a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, his fiction and essays have appeared in anderbo.com, The MacGuffin, LIT, The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, therumpus.net, Fifth Wednesday Journal and others. He was short-listed for the top ten online stories of 2008 by storySouth's Million Writers Award and was runner up for Open City Magazine's 2009 Rick Rofihe Trophy. His debut collection, We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now, was released in April 2010 by Ampersand Books. He currently lives in a strange limbo between Paris and Southern England.