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The Wings of the Dove

Directed by Ian Softley

This is neither the time nor the place to launch into a lengthy disquisition on cinematic adaptations of literary material, but director Iain Softley’s ‘filmisation’ (if one can have a ‘novelisation’ of an original screenplay, why can’t one coin a similar neologism for attempts to film novels?) of Henry James’ 1902 book The Wings of the Dove (obviously something of a change of direction for Softly after Backbeat and Hackers) has brought to boiling point for me an animus I have had simmering for some time. Perhaps it is because it is James who is now receiving this treatment (The Gate’s production of The Heiress, based on Washington Square, and Jane Campion’s use of The Portrait of a Lady last year as a jumping off point for her own concerns, are two recent examples) that I have decided to vent my agitation, since I care more about his work than I do about that of Jane Austen or E M Forster, two other writers who are favourites with the film department of the British Heritage Industry (hereinafter referred to as the BHI).




It is a curious vanity of the present, which betokens both an astounding arrogance and a telling insecurity, to project its values onto the past, where the past is found wanting in respect to itself (eg Campion’s Freudian, sexually repressed Isabel Archer, Softley’s casual physical intimacy between Kate Croy and Merton Densher); and, conversely, to glorify the values of the past, where it finds itself not quite measuring up when compared to them (eg take your pick of any of the films or TV series of Austen). The defence argument runs that these products of the BHI appeal because they deal with societies where everyone knew where they stood and everything was ordered just so. But such harking back is misplaced, since the worlds of Austen or James or Forster were no more static or stable than our own, especially relative to the amount of change and diversity people had been brought up to expect and accept. Precisely what makes most of these books interesting is that they deal with individuals in transition, in societies in transition. (All individuals and all societies are always in transition.)

Of course, people choose their own pasts. I myself am partial to seeing Roman togas and cloaks on screen, not to mention sixties fashions like mini-skirts and knee-boots. Indeed, it could be argued that westerns and gangster movies are in their own ways just elaborate period pieces. People choose their own futures too. Sci-fi movies as costume dramas, anyone? But why can’t we have a few original screenplays from the BHI, instead of the continuing tiresome bowdlerisation of books that were doing very well as they were, thank you.
A huge proportion of great literature is not user-friendly, particularly in this day and age. Great writers will be the first to tell you so. Should we therefore translate it into a more user-friendly medium? But a huge proportion of great cinema is not user-friendly either. Great directors will be the first to tell you so. That it is easier to make a good film from a bad book is a cliché of contemporary cultural practice we are constantly hearing, the corollary being that it is also all too easy to make a bad film of a good book. A work of art is great to the extent that it depends for its affects on the materials that are particular to the form in which it was created, outside of which the rest are redundant, and in which the rest are contained. Chief among the components of books are words. Chief among the components of films are images.

In view of these strictures, a conventional review of The Wings of the Dove from me is probably pointless, any pretence on my part towards objectivity useless. Essentially, you know what you’re going to get (both from me and from the film), so if it’s your thing, go to it. The film of The Wings of the Dove qua film is fine, in that Merchant Ivory kind of way. There are the obligatory London, Home Counties and Italian (this time Venice) locations, the equally necessary grand sets and nice frocks. Alison Elliott emotes well as the ailing heiress, Milly Theale, Linus Roache is rather wooden as the impecunious journalist, Merton Densher, and Helena Bonham Carter is her usual alluring, headstrong English girl self (cf A Room with a View, Maurice, Howards End) as Kate Croy, who befriends the former and is the secret intimate of the latter. Apparently it is a big deal that she gets her kit off here for the first time. Whatever turns you on. Oh, and Charlotte Rampling and Michael Gambon turn up too, as her manipulative aunt and her dissolute father, respectively. But, unlike the novel on which it is based, there is little sense of the interior psychology of these characters, or of the moral dilemma around which they and it subtly revolve. Or certainly not as much as there is in the novel. The ending of the film in particular is a disappointment, with a ‘for idiots’ simplistic resolution, in place of the more open closure (yeuch!) of the book.
So if you seldom read books, but love a certain genre of film, this will entertain you. But lovers of James, or those who want to take the trouble to find out what he was actually on about, would be better advised to spend a few evenings at home with their feet up, reading the novel.

First published in Film Ireland









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