Washington Square and Wings of the Dove

by Cathleen Myers

If 1995/96 was "The Year of Jane Austen," 1997 could almost be called "The Year of Henry James, with three films already released based on James’ novels: The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square and The Wings of the Dove. More James film projects are in the works but so far, it seems unlikely that Henry James will captivate film audiences the way Jane Austen did and still does. While both Austen and James are subtle, ironic novelists whose wry wit is difficult to capture on screen, the difference is that even stripped of irony, wit, and ambiguity, Austen writes a cracking good romance that works well onscreen. The interest in James novels is almost exclusively in what the characters think and feel rather than in what they actually do and this does not translate well on screen, and the ambiguity of James’ narrative rarely translates at all (though Truman Capote almost succeeded in his screenplay for The Innocents, the haunting film version of Turn of the Screw).

Try to catch Buena Vista’s Washington Square (directed by Agnieszka Holland) in a bargain matinee. It’s a visually pretty film with first class production values, capturing the opulence of Old New York (circa 1850-60) with its elegant interiors and lovely costumes (special kudos to costume designer William Cimino for Catherine’s ghastly, over-trimmed "First Evening Gown"). The party scenes have some fine period touches - the band playing authentic Victorian dance music (though the dancers waltz through the polka mazurka!) and the young bucks gathered around the piano singing a rousing aria from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment.

With the fatal exception of its heroine, the film is well-cast as well: Jennifer Jason Leigh is far too pretty, even without make-up, to be convincing as Catherine, the shy, plain heiress spinster, and, to compensate, her awkwardness is very broadly played (Remember Carol Burnett’s bumbling Catherine in her parody of The Heiress?). But Ms. Leigh does at least succeed in portraying Catherine’s gradual increase in self-possession and confidence, nicely symbolized by her more stylish gowns and suits in the latter half of the film (her mourning ensemble is to die for!). The supporting characters are all well-played: As her ambitious and impossibly gorgeous suitor Morris Townsend, Ben Chaplin almost makes us believe in his sincerity; Maggie Smith is amusing as her romantic aunt, whose knowledge of life comes from trashy novels ("You must get married - in a subterranean chapel"); and as Catherine’s autocratic but not entirely unkind father, Albert Finney tosses off his sardonic insults as if unaware of their casual cruelty.

Carol Doyle’s screenplay, while striving to be more faithful to James’ novel than the more melodramatic William Wyler version (The Heiress), gives the story a feminist slant: the recurring theme in the film is that Catherine should have been allowed to decide for herself and had a right to her chance at happiness and this is a legitimate interpretation. Her screenplay, however, makes some inexplicable changes to the story that make no historical sense: Catherine in the original novel is her father’s sole heiress and is expected to inherit his huge fortune but has only $10,000 of her own (inherited from her mother). Doyle changes Catherine’s private fortune to $10,000 a year - a fortune that any self-respecting 1850’s fortune-hunter would jump at. And we’re expected to believe that Townsend turns her down?!!! Doyle also gives Townsend an appalling rejection speech that brands him as cruel as well as despicable - so much for Jamesian ambiguity. It’s pleasant to see Catherine pursuing her own interests and content with her life as a single woman in the end but she lets Townsend off far too easily!

Miramax’s new adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, on the other hand, is deeply moving as well as visually beautiful. Set in 1910 London and Venice, the sets are predictably gorgeous and costumer Sandy Powell and his milliner create extremely elegant haute couture costumes, which Helena Bonham Carter (Kate Croix) wears as if to the manner born. Kate is a well-born but dowerless girl in love with a penniless journalist Merton Densher (Linus Roach), whom her aristocratic guardian has forbidden her to see. Enter beautiful and amiable Millie Thiele - an American multi-millionaireness who adores Kate and falls in love with Merton. When Kate discovers that Millie is terminally ill, this seems the solution to all her problems. Then the ironic twists begin.

Wings is an extraordinarily touching and unusual triangular love and betrayal story (or is it betrayal? Is Kate and Merton’s plan to bring a little love and happiness into a dying girl’s life really so very immoral? There’s more than a touch of Jamesian irony here). Ms. Bonham Carter is particularly convincing as the morally ambiguous heroine, while Alison Elliott plays Millie with a winning combination of innocence and intelligence. Director Iain Softley tries to capture some of the novel’s descriptive beauty by showing us lots of lovely views of Venice, including some attempts at Jamesian symbolism (Millie, her scarf worn like a Madonna-like mantilla, standing on the balcony, watching the doves in flight; the exotically beautiful Kate looking as out of place on the London tube as a Bird of Paradise).

The film has its weaknesses: One does wonder why Millie is instantly attracted to Merton, who comes off as rather a cold fish at first and never really engages our sympathies, even in crusading liberal journalist mode. One also wonders why Hossein Amini’s screenplay goes out of its way to soften Kate’s character by giving her extra motivation (by showing her as caring daughter with a wretched opium-addicted father to provide for). The fact that she has nothing to live on except her aunt’s charity is surely sufficient motivation in itself. And was it really necessary to have Kate and Merton’s final confrontation played in the nude?

But, on the whole, this is the most successful Henry James adaptation since The Innocents.

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