She didn't come here to die... she came here to live.
"Wings of the Dove" is based on one of the lesser-known works by turn-of-the-century author Henry James (whose "Washington Square" was recently released theatrically). It is an exquisitely-directed story of romantic intrigue in the halls of privilege that pits the rules of Victorian propriety against the more contemporary values of the Twentieth century, a common theme of James' novels. Despite its costume-drama trappings, the moral ambiguities and displaced loyalties faced by the three principal characters have a universal relevance and appeal.
There's far too much going on behind those pretty eyelashes.
Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter of "Margaret's Museum") is a young woman on the fringes of high society, taken in by her wealthy Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), who intends to 'save' the poor girl from a life of destitution by marrying her off to a wealthy suitor, such as the arrogant Lord Mark (Alex Jennings). However, Kate is in love with Merton Densher (Linus Roache from "Priest"), a reporter for a London newspaper. Despite Maude's efforts to keep them apart, Kate and her lover of lower social stature continue their forbidden love affair through a series of clandestine meetings-- that is, until Maude threatens to cut off a weekly allowance paid to Kate's penniless father (Michael Gambon).
She'd be Queen of America if they had one.
Enter Millie Theale (Alison Elliott, last seen in "The Spitfire Grill"), a very wealthy orphan in the midst of touring Europe. Kate comes to know her and learns two important secrets about the lovely American woman: she is slowly dying of some blood disease, and she is enamored with Merton. Taking a cue from the conniving Lord Mark, Kate devises a scheme: have Millie fall in love with Merton, have Millie marry Merton, and have Millie leave Merton her money once she has moved on (say that five times fast!). The game is afoot when Millie invites Kate to spend the summer in Venice, and Kate suggests that they invite her 'old friend of the family', Merton. Merton reluctantly goes along with the ploy, out of his love for Kate, making what will probably be Millie's last days as fulfilling as possible. But deep within their hearts, both Kate and Merton find themselves troubled by this cold act of desperation on a woman who wishes to feel true love in her final days.
Despite having a plot that is reminiscent of "Indecent Proposal", the screenplay by Hossein Amini and strong performances bring depth to an otherwise familiar tale. It is a well-paced film that uses the full capabilities of the visual medium for the enhancement of storytelling. Director Iain Softley (yes, the same director responsible for 1995's "Hackers"), with help from cinematographer Eduardo Serra, makes good use of the actors' subtle facial expressions and powerful imagery to convey the rich subtext and emotional turmoil of James' novel. There are many scenes in which the underlying significance can be understood by context, from something as simple as the color of the lens filter used, without requiring a word of dialogue to be spoken.
The performances of Carter and Elliott also serve to contrast the two women of the story: Carter portrays the repressed Kate with a cold intensity that shows a glimmer of the vulnerability hiding below the surface, whereas Elliott brings vitality and strength to the dying Millie, whose celebration and love of life bring warmth and compassion to the lives of her two closest friends. Roache also turns in a good performance as the go-between, caught between two mutually-exclusive alternatives. However, Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Millie's nurse, is utterly wasted, as her character never develops beyond that of a glorified messenger.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from "Wings of the Dove", based on my viewing of the uninteresting trailer several months prior. I have never been a big fan of the Merchant-Ivory-type costume drama, yet I found this film to be a mesmerizing drama, beautifully crafted and eliciting much empathy for the well-realized characters. Yes, it is a product of the British classical school of film-making (which to me usually means listening to rich aristocrats whine), but the sharp screenplay by Amini and poignant direction by Softley make it truly one of the year's most memorable films.