The Wings of the Dove

After two highly touted adaptations of Henry James novels -- Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady and Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square -- comes one with fewer built-in expectations. Not only is The Wings of the Dove based on one of the author's lesser-known works, but its director has only the lackluster Backbeat (1993) and overwrought Hackers (1995) to his credit.

This makes The Wings of the Dove all the more surprising. Director Iain Softley, working from Hossein Amini's pared-down but emotionally rich script, has made a costume drama that's invigoratingly modern without being anachronistic. Softley provides the expected refined elegance -- exquisite images of England and Venice -- but enlivens it with an exuberant vitality.

Wings focuses on a love triangle to illustrate a common Jamesian theme, that inherited wealth makes the recipient vulnerable and ripe for fortune-hunting vultures.

American heiress Millie Theale (Alison Elliott), enthusiastically looking for new experiences in Europe, unwittingly becomes embroiled in the complex affair between Merton Densher (Linus Roache) and Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter).

Once Merton's peer, Kate has been taken under the wing of her rich aunt who demands that she conform to the conventions of her new prosperous surroundings. This means shedding the socially unsuitable journalist Merton.

But Kate, taking a few lessons in manipulation and emotional blackmail, sets Merton up with the terminally ill Millie, hoping to have both a fortune and her lover in the end.

Intense and conflicted emotions are the order of the day. When Millie asserts that she loves both Kate and Merton, it's not a glib statement. Scenes between Elliott and Carter (both in top form) have a charged intimacy which makes the betrayals, large and small, truly sting.

Changing the time frame from 1902 to 1910 allows for a ride in the London Underground, a Gustav Klimt exhibit and loose-fitting, gorgeously flowing dresses. It also frees the makers of The Wings of the Dove to respectfully shed the constrictions of Henry James' moralizing, rigorous and suffocatingly beautiful prose. Instead, they have flown his characters straight ahead into the tumultuous 20th century.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].