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The Wings of the Dove (1997)

wings_of_the_dove_ver1It’s a shame that Helena Bonham Carter earned a Best Actress nomination for this performance, when so many others — take last year’s Margaret’s Museum, for example — have allowed her to be the combustibly reckless personality that only she can be. 

In director Iain Softley’s adaptation of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, Bonham Carter plays Kate Croy, a young woman being groomed for the life of an early 1900’s upper class British lady. Croy’s smart enough to pull it off, but she’s so in love with Merton (Linus Roache), a poor boy journalist, that she’s willing to commit a cruel deception to get what she wants.

Bonham-Carter has the talent to make this work, but the script robs her of the opportunity. The problem is this – we’re given no reason to care about these two yearning hearts, and thus we are missing the necessary tension when we see Kate and Merton’s love endangered by their own foolishness. Our only evidence of their love is a garish display of suck-face. One would hope they are attracted to each other for more than heavy smooching. I haven’t read James’s novel, but something tells me we’re not getting whatever has made this story a classic of English literature. Quite probably, this adaptation is an example of too much story, too little screen time.

Softley’s much-acclaimed film version does deserve praise for its Oscar-nominated costuming and cinematography. But its script fails to develop the central characters enough for us to care much about them. In the end, it’s an ordeal to watch desire overcome discernment until disaster inevitably follows.

As we watch naughty Kate dupe her wishy-washy lover into faking affection for Millie, a dying rich girl (Eliot), in order to win her heart and her money, we are disgusted by the plan, unconvinced by the plotting lovers, and a little sorry for the dying million-heiress, who actually achieves a few moments of genuine charm. Millie falls hard for the young man and, predictably, Merton begins to feel something genuine for her, leaving his poor lover in a puddle of anxiety. Kate’s jealousy leads, of course, to disaster.

In the end, there’s little suspense, since there is no one to sympathize with or applaud. We can only shake our heads and say “Poor poor Millie… bad bad Kate!” And when the tormented Merton finally confesses to his sour-faced lover that the dying Millie is “more alive than anyone I have ever met”, we are somewhat surprised. Really, Merton? I mean, sure, she’s charming; but did something essential end up on cutting room floor?

Overall, this adaptation leaves us with a pageant of base behavior, outbursts of emotions without evident foundations, and characters who never live up to others’ perceptions of them. On any given week, you can probably find a prime time television drama that demonstrates the morals of the story – tell the truth and don’t let money dictate your decisions – with more subtlety and eloquence.

It might have been far more satisfying to see Merton to shape up, fall in love with Millie, save her life, and then prosecute the reprehensible Kate. But James’ story is about disintegration and corruption, not redemption. Still, the way this film is framed, it seems the filmmakers are more enamored of their selfish characters, more interested in exploring their exploits, than they are in considering the consequences of the sin. What might have been liberating becomes, in the end, merely lurid.

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is an author and a teacher. His books include a cinematic memoir (Through a Screen Darkly, Regal, 2007) and a four-volume fantasy epic (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). For more than 15 years he has lectured at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. His writing on faith and art, recognized by The New Yorker and indieWire, has been published in Christianity Today and Image (where he has been a columnist); and in Books & Culture, Comment, Paste, and more. He's earning a masters in creative writing at SPU. Want to invite him to teach or speak about creative writing or cinema? Email