I’m always a little amazed when I watch a movie set in the 1920s or 30s or 40s — I sometimes forget that for all the things that have changed in the last 50 or 60 or 70 years, in many ways life then was similar to life today. There were cars and telephones and electric lights in the 20s — move 70 years back from 1929 to 1859, and you’d probably find fewer similarities than you would between 1929 and 1999.
The Wings of the Dove, based on the Henry James novel, is set in London in 1910 — almost 90 years ago — yet much of what we would consider modern is already in place: Telecommunications, electricity, and the automobile are transforming the way people live. But the old world is still intrudes. One era is ending and another beginning, and the strife between the two threatens to tear two ardent lovers apart.
Ironically, Kate Croy’s (Helena Bonham Carter) new world is the old world. Newly made a ward of her rich Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), Kate is being introduced to a nineteenth-century society life of arranged marriages and too-polite parties. Maude is trying to marry Kate off to Lord Mark (Alex Jennings), a “wretched aristocrat” who likes to start off the day, still in his dressing gown, with a drink and a round of shooting at bunnies on the lawn from the parapet of his castle.
But Kate’s heart is elsewhere, in her old world: the new world, exemplified by her friend, radical journalist Merton Densher (Linus Roache). Penniless but noble and handsome, Merton is the man Kate loves and has to sneak out to see. He is a totally unsuitable match for the proper lady Kate’s aunt wants her to be and has the capability to try to force her to be. But when Kate meets Millie Theale (Alison Elliott) — “the world’s richest orphan,” who finds Merton very attractive — Kate begins cooking up a plan that will keep her and Merton together forever.
Much of what’s intriguing about The Wings of the Dove is to be found in its layers of ironies. Kate is devious behind her fragile facade, and while she rejects her aunt and her world, she is as scheming as her aunt is when it comes to matters of marriage. From London, the action moves to a magical city of romance: Venice, with its gorgeous sunsets, sun-dappled piazzas, and torchlit masques, is the scene of romantic machinations.
I was fascinated, too, with how modern Kate and Merton felt, and that made sense when I realized — one of my weird little interests being a generational view of history — that they were the Generation Xers of their day, the Lost Generation (like Hemingway and Fitzgerald). Kate, like the stereotypical Xer, is practical, cold, and realistic in the name of love, the one emotion that’s none of those things. And Merton reveals that “I don’t believe in any of the things I write about. I fake passion. I fake conviction.” Which could come out of the mouth of just about any twentysomething or early thirtysomething I know.
It probably helps that an intense young cast of Xers is portraying these Lost. Bonham Carter has a force of personality that leaps out at the viewer — she looks tiny and breakable but she’s hard as stone. Elliott, whom I’d never seen before, has an earthbound ethereality, like she might take off in flight at any moment were something not holding her down, which sounds like a slight but is totally appropriate for her character’s situation (it would spoil the movie if I elaborated). But the real find here is Roache — where have they been keeping this guy? Like a young Jeremy Irons or a more-conventionally-attractive version of Tim Roth, Roache gives Merton a sad fierceness, as if he knows from the outset how he and Kate are going to end up.
With the sharp angles of conflicting passions cutting through Kate, Millie, and Merton, and all their plots and plans going unspoken, simmering just beneath the surface, The Wings of the Dove is a complex, heartbreaking film.