The Wings of the Dove (1997)

The Wings of the DoveStarring Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache, Alison Elliott, Elizabeth McGovern, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Gambon.
Written by Hossein Amini based on the novel by Henry James.
Directed by Iain Softley.

Grade: B+

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

A darker movie than many other British period films, The Wings of the Dove was easily one of the top films of 1997, but only earned three Oscar® nominations (Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Costume Design), winning none. With exquisite cinematography and fine performances from Helena Bonham Carter (A Room with a View), Linus Roache (Priest), and Alison Elliott (The Spitfire Grill), The Wings of the Dove is a nicely understated morality tale about a high society woman, Kate Croy, who pushes her penniless lover into a romance with a wealthy friend.

Director Iain Softley (Hackers, Backbeat) has changed Henry James' novel slightly by setting the story in 1910 instead of 1902 and by making Kate (Carter) a more sympathetic character--and thus, a more complex character. When we first meet Kate, she is struggling against the social rigidities of her time. Kate's Aunt Maud (Charlotte Rampling), who has raised her, has forbidden her to see Merton Densher (Roache), a working man. But Kate is passionately in love, and can't keep away from Merton. Elliott, Roache and Carter

When the beautiful and rich Millie Theale (Elliot) arrives from the United States, she and Kate become close friends. Not knowing that Merton and Kate are involved, Millie expresses a romantic interest in Merton. Shortly thereafter, Kate learns that Millie is terminally ill and intends to see Europe before she dies. An idea begins to form in Kate's head. If Merton travels with Millie to Venice, perhaps Millie will fall in love with Merton and leave him her fortune. And so, Kate reveals a darker side to her character. She may be unfairly constricted by her social station, but it's clear that she ascribes to the class structure nonetheless. She's not willing to abandon money and status to be with Merton, but she is willing to do morally questionable things.

Helena Bonham Carter gives one of her best performances, for which she received a well-deserved Oscar® nomination. She portrays Kate as an opportunist more than a cold-blooded schemer. Even when we sympathize with the manipulative Kate the least, Carter keeps her human. Similarly, Elliot's Millie is not just a typical frail victim of love. She is stronger and more perceptive than she seems, and she is also the movie-perfect tragic figure--humble, good-hearted, generous, and full of life, even as she nears death. And what about Merton? Is he Kate's willing accomplice, or does he develop real feelings for Millie?

The Wings of the Dove is more than just a typical period soap-opera. Were it a straightforward tale about two ruthless people defrauding an innocent victim, it would not be nearly as interesting. Nineteenth-century mores conflict with twentieth-century passions. Secret desires and emotional violence lurk beneath the surface of the story, and the desires are not fully understood by the characters themselves.

Review © July 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Image © 1997 Miramax. All Rights Reserved.

Send us a comment on this review. We'll post a link to the best comments!

Visit the official The Wings of the Dove web site.