At one point in The Wings of the Dove, Henry James describes a moment of revelation in an alluring sentence: “All her little pieces had now then fallen together for him like the morsels of coloured glass that used to make combinations, under the hands, in the depths of one of the polygonal peepshows of childhood.” That’s an accurate assessment of how our own perceptions about characters and even events develop in a late James novel like The Wings of the Dove (or The Ambassadors or The Golden Bowl). We watch the exquisite surface of the narrative carefully for tiny slits or shifts in the quality of the light that might enhance our understanding of what’s going on right before our eyes. “You don’t, you know, really tell me anything,” complains Merton Densher, the journalist who finds himself part of a plot initiated by his lover, Kate Croy, that he doesn’t exactly comprehend, and his intrigued bafflement might stand in for our own. The plot hatched in such secrecy is that Densher make the mortally ill American heiress Milly Theale, who is Kate’s closest friend, fall in love with him, so that she’ll leave him a fortune when she dies and enable him to marry Kate. In the market society of fin-de-siècle London, there’s no other way for Merton and Kate’s own love to survive. She’s under the protection of an aunt who agrees to keep her only if she denounces her relationships with Densher and with her father – whose marriage to her mother was, in Aunt Maud’s eyes, a dreadful mistake that she doesn’t want her niece to repeat with Densher. And since Kate has no way to support herself, she has no choice but to acquiesce to her aunt’s tyranny – that is, unless Milly makes Densher a rich man.
James wrote comedies of manners in which language (always the key element in high comedy) is employed first to obfuscate and then – very, very slowly – to reveal. His style reflects the world of his characters, where the harsh realities of life are dressed in delicate, prismatic colors. If it takes him hundreds of pages to own up to Milly’s impending death, that’s because Milly herself goes to great lengths to conceal it from everyone except her traveling companion, Susan Stringham: she wants to embrace life, not shroud it in black, and she refuses to smell like a sick room or taste of medicine. Kate’s scheme to betray her best friend is so appalling – even to Kate herself – that she has to keep it in the shadows, and that’s why it isn’t until page 374 of a five-hundred-page novel that it’s finally spoken out loud. It’s James’s special gift to draw us so far inside this world that the smallest hint of a hidden truth, catching the silvery glint of an unexpected phrase or an unorthodox encounter, can strike us with the power of an earthquake. But in drama, language has to be expressive rather than repressive, so James’s peculiar brand of high comedy can’t work on either the stage or the screen without considerable manipulation. (He wrote plays, too, but, not surprisingly, they were dismal failures.) Two of the three best movie adaptations of his work, William Wyler’s 1949 The Heiress (out of Washington Square by way of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s Broadway play), and Iain Softley’s 1997 film of The Wings of the Dove, bring the narrative material into the realm of melodrama, where secrets are revealed in more conventional ways. (The third is Jack Clayton’s 1991 The Innocents, based on James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw, which posits quite different challenges for an adapter.) That statement isn’t meant to devalue the achievements of either of these films, which are complex, suggestive and resonant, and where the motives of the characters are knotted and ambiguous.
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The play Ruth and Augustus Goetz fashioned from Washington Square was a hit on Broadway in 1947 with Wendy Hiller, and Olivia De Havilland won a deserved Oscar for her performance in the movie version. Wyler’s touch is all over the movie – it’s one of his most astonishing pieces of direction – but it’s truly a collaboration between him and the Goetzes’ beautiful script. When the play was revived in New York in the mid-nineties with the great stage actress Cherry Jones in the title role, the audience I saw it with barely breathed while the drama was unfolding, and at intermission all the talk I heard was about the characters. They’re James’s characters, of course, but the Goetzes had to find a way to dramatize them – to set the James plot in motion. The story, set in New York in the middle of the nineteenth century, concerns a young woman named Catherine Sloper, plain and retiring, who attracts the notice of a poor young man named Morris Townsend; he courts her and she falls in love for the first time. Her father, a doctor of tremendous intellect but little heart, realizes that Townsend is a fortune hunter and threatens to disinherit his daughter if she marries him, leaving her with only her dead mother’s inheritance – enough for her to live comfortably on , but considerably less than he knows Morris was hoping for. James leaves no doubt that Sloper’s assessment of the young suitor is correct, but Catherine’s feelings for Townsend provoke a surprising rebellion against her father; it is, ironically, the most character she’s ever demonstrated, and the detached, observant Sloper is fascinated. The young man eventually admits defeat and they break off their engagement, but because she hasn’t agreed to her father’s terms she loses his money and, at the end, descends unbowed into spinsterhood.
The novella, an ironic high comedy kept at a cool temperature, is brilliant. High comedy focuses on class, and the English and French classics in this genre, written in the eighteenth and early and mid-nineteenth centuries, were about the insulated lives of aristocrats. What makes Washington Square, written in 1880, modern (and American) is that the Slopers are aristocrats because of Dr. Sloper’s money, not his birth; still, Morris Townsend is an outsider striving to be allowed into a world that his poverty has ostracized him from. The high-comic concerns operate fully here: his courtship of Catherine gains him a foothold but eventually he loses it. Yet there’s no happy ending, and that’s the other modern touch.
Wyler and the Goetzes retain the ironic tone but restructure the material as a melodrama. Sloper (a marvelous performance by Ralph Richardson) isn’t merely detached from his daughter; the loss of his wife, whom he adored, shortly after childbirth has made him incapable of loving Catherine. All he can see in her is her inadequacy in comparison with her mother, in whose shadow she walks awkwardly, painfully, always aware that she can’t fill it. When she dons a new cherry-red gown for her cousin’s engagement party (that’s where she makes Townsend’s acquaintance; he’s the groom’s cousin), Catherine’s silly, fluttery widowed Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), who lives with them and fills the role of companion for Catherine, points out that red was always her mother’s color, and Sloper instinctively dismisses the connection, because his wife, he reminds her, who was fair, “dominated” the color. Catherine has studied the piano dutifully but her father finds it baffling that she has no ear for the instrument when her mother’s ear was so unerring that she tuned her own.
Catherine blossoms under Morris’s intentions because he offers her the love she has never received from her father, though it takes her a long time to discover it. After she has told Sloper of Morris’s intentions and Morris comes to call on him to ask for her hand, she begs him, heartbreakingly, to say a few kind words in her favor when he is alone with the man she loves: “You know me so well. It will not be immodest in you to praise me a little.” She doesn’t realize that he has already spoken with Morris’s sister, with whom he lives, and confirmed his suspicion – based on his own brief acquaintance of the young man – that he is a worthless golddigger. When he more or less throws Morris out, she rushes down the stairs, distraught, and demands to know why the two men have quarreled; “Catherine, you are without dignity,” her father remarks, disappointed in her once again, but the scene underscores her romantic distress, not her lack of decorum. The movie arranges events so that on the Slopers’ return from a European trip, which Catherine’s father imposes on her in a vain attempt to wean her away from Morris, his exasperation that he has failed causes him to criticize her in terms so forthright that she realizes for the first time that her lifelong efforts to win his approval have been hopeless. So she presses Morris, who has devised a plan of elopement for the next night, to take her away that evening instead because she doesn’t want to live another day under the roof of a parent who doesn’t love her, and she makes it clear that they will never see a penny of Sloper’s money – which in any case she doesn’t want. The movie holds off on relaying this information to Morris, emphasizing what even ridiculous Aunt Lavinia (who has taken the role of the duenna in their romance, entertaining and encouraging Morris in Catherine’s absence) realizes is a pathetic naiveté on her niece’s part. In an agonizing scene, Catherine waits with her bags for Morris to return in a carriage to whisk her away, and of course he doesn’t come.
James, as I’ve said, doesn’t make any bones about Morris’s character. After Sloper interrogates Mrs. Montgomery, Morris’s fond widowed sister, he introduces her to Catherine, and she’s taken aback; seeing none of the qualities that might attract a charming young man, she is forced to see his bid for her money in all its nakedness and impulsively she implores Sloper not to let Catherine marry him. The movie replicates her surprise but not her outburst; instead she voices a hopeful conclusion that her brother must have matured in his tastes. By the time we see Morris drinking Sloper’s brandy and smoking his fine cigars by his fireside in Aunt Lavinia’s company while the Slopers are traveling through Europe – “us[ing Sloper’s] home as his club,” in Sloper’s phrase – we’ve reluctantly reached the same conclusion as Sloper, but the casting of Montgomery Clift in the role of Townsend has compelled us to stave it off. Clift’s amazing presence – the tender tentativeness, the childlikeness, the eroticized softness (no American movie star of the post-war era was less macho) – creates such a romantic swirl that we want to believe in him just as much as Catherine does; we keep resisting James’s upsetting truth, that her ice-hearted father’s assessment is accurate.
In both the novella and the film, Morris returns after Sloper’s death to make a second try at winning Catherine, but on the page she puts him off without resentment; also she’s lost her father’s money. In the film he leaves it to her after his final threat to disinherit her (she has refused to promise that, after his death, she won’t use his money to woo Morris back) provokes her to challenge him, even going so far as to furnish him paper and pen to rewrite his will, and he backs down. The film gives Catherine a far more dramatic arc than the novella does: her experience, first with her father and then with Morris, embitters her while it gives her a new power over Sloper (who is dying). By the end her awkwardness and shyness and her increasingly desperate bid for affection have turned into implacability and banked fury. And she exacts a double revenge. First on her father: her unkind treatment of him in the last months of his life diminishes him even more than his illness. Wyler sums up their new relationship in an eloquent deep focus shot in which Catherine, in the foreground, works calmly at her needlepoint, her image reflected ominously in a mirror behind her, while in the background her ailing father, walking slowly and stooped, disappears behind a door on the left side of the frame. Then she takes revenge on Morris, who returns to court her two years later, after she has become rich: she deludes him into thinking she’ll elope with him, just as they once planned, but when he arrives she bolts the door against him and leaves him pounding on it, calling out her name, as she ascends the staircase to her bedroom with only a lamp to illumine the (symbolic) darkness. No one who has seen The Heiress is likely to have forgotten this scene – or the frightening conviction in De Havilland’s face and voice as she tells her astonished aunt, “He came back with the same lies. Well, he came to the wrong house, and he came twice. I shall see to it that he never comes again.” The shot of Catherine walking up those stairs is the culmination of Wyler’s dominant motif: the house itself, which is so powerful a presence that it’s nearly a character in the movie. At the end she locks herself up in it, entombed in it like the women at the end of Lorca’s The House of Bernada Alba and O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Wyler turns James’s story, in the last analysis, into a Gothic.
The way in which the movie rethinks James is even clearer when you see Agniezska Holland’s 1997 film Washington Square, written by Carol Doyle, which — despite some idiotic tacked-on flashbacks to Catherine’s childhood, a misbegotten updated-feminist take on her character, and the unfortunate casting of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the part — is actually much more faithful to James. Holland’s version bypasses Wyler’s ironies and returns to James’s (Catherine loses her father’s money), and it’s lumpy, cemented, almost perversely undramatic. Its single interest is the Morris Townsend of Ben Chaplin, who plays the character as a damaged child determined to compensate himself for the things he feels he’s been deprived of. And he can be pouty and mean when he thinks he’s not going to get them; his behavior toward the harmless aunt (played by Maggie Smith) is sometimes shocking. The material has been more serviceable to filmmakers than one might imagine: the 1988 Masquerade, written by Dick Wolf and directed by Bob Swaim, is a murder mystery that spins off it, with Meg Tilly as the heiress whose stepfather (John Glover) and sailor boy friend (Rob Lowe) conspire to kill her and split her fortune. Fanciful as Masquerade is, it’s more satisfying than Holland’s Washington Square.
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Iain Softley, the director of The Wings of the Dove, is a confident and imaginative filmmaker. He and the screenwriter, Hossein Amini, elect to move up the setting of James’s story from 1902 (the date of its publication) to 1910, and the change is bolder than it may sound. 1910 was practically the First World War; it was past the death of the Victorian age. The stunning blue gowns and feathery hats Sandy Powell has designed for Helena Bonham Carter to wear as Kate, and the gilt-edged Klimt palette Powell dips into for Alison Elliott’s costumes as Milly, are more sensuous and seductive than the outfits these characters would have worn eight years earlier. When Milly stretches out on the floor of the parlor of an aristocrat’s fading estate, propped up against a sofa, her undisguised plumping for comfort doesn’t seem indecorous in this era, nor do we balk even when Kate kicks Densher’s reluctant courtship of Milly in gear by leaving them together in a museum room under a frankly erotic painting (by Klimt). Kate isn’t allusive and clandestine when she proposes her plans for Milly to Densher, and we don’t expect her to be – especially when he move has made it clear that Kate and Merton are sleeping together and their obvious intimacy would make secrecy between them odd and implausible. The story is the one James wrote, but the cultural environment is so comparatively forward that the world of the novel and the world of the movie feel almost as removed from each other as the gracious, sleigh-and-ballroom world of the Ambersons does from the automobile age that overtakes it in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons.
Visually, Softley’s movie, which was shot by Eduardo Serra, is magnificent, especially in the Venice scenes that make up roughly the second half of the film; Venice is the setting for the playing out of Kate’s scenario for Merton and Milly. (Serra is a master, but Venice does bring out the best in cinematographers; think of Summertime, Death in Venice, Don’t Look Now.) And in dramatic terms, the picture gives a viewer little to quibble about except for a rushed final act. The performances are impeccable. Linus Roache is just about ideal as the conscience-stricken left-intellectual Densher, and his long, lean looks suit the period. He manages something extremely difficult: to play a character who, despite his professional poise and his wit and his social ease, isn’t fully formed. James writes of Merton, “He suggested, above all . . . that wondrous state of youth in which the elements, the metals more or less precious, are so in fusion and fermentation that the question of the final stamp, the pressure that fixes the value, must wait for comparative coolness.” And the two principal women are marvelous. Helena Bonham Carter’s Kate is torn apart by two conflicts: she sacrifices her best friend to a scheme to acquire her wealth, and when she hands over the man she loves to another woman, she suddenly realizes that she risks losing him forever. Kate can’t be simply a villainess (James didn’t write many); we have to feel the weight of what she has to lose.
Milly is a more mysterious creature than Kate. In fact, James devotes an entire chapter to her early on without telling us the first thing about how her amazing personality works. What he does say is that she weaves a kind of spell: “She had arts and idiosyncrasies of which no great account could have been given, but which were a daily grace if you lived with them; such as the art of being almost tragically impatient and yet making it light as air, of being inexplicably sad and yet making it as clear as noon; of being unmistakably gay, and yet making it as soft as dusk.” We have to fall a little in love with Milly, or the drama can’t work, and Alison Elliott, with her frizz of red hair and her warm, open face – set against Carter’s slightly pouty porcelain one – makes us adore her. Milly is the dove of the title, living in “caged freedom,” and her spread wings imply several things: the shelter of financial security, the impending shadow of death, and an indescribable touch that alters her two friends forever. James describes the influences on Densher as “zones of air that had left their ruffle on his wings,” but it’s finally Milly Theale’s wings that leave their ruffle on his life.
The Wings of the Dove is an exquisite piece of filmmaking, and Softley’s work with the actors, which is subtle and textured (as it was in Backbeat, his previous film, about the early days of the Beatles), keeps the complexities of the characters in our minds. But the move to make their actions and motivations explicit mutes what’s most unsettling in the novel: the contradiction between the surface, the screen of perfect decorum and taste, and the taint of corruption that for hundreds of pages James merely hints at. Nothing in Softley’s movie is as creepy as the undercurrent we can sense throughout the book. In several scenes, James comes up with swirls of descriptive prose that are also commentaries on his own technique. My favorite is a glimpse of Kate and Milly together:
Certain aspects of the connection of these young women show for us, such as the twilight that gathers about them, is the likeness of some dim scene in a Maeterlinck play; we have positively the image, in the delicate dusk, of the figures so associated and yet so opposed, so mutually watchful: that of the angular, pale princess, ostrich-plumed, black robed, hung about with amulets, reminders, relics, mainly seated, and that of the upright, restless, slow-circling lady of her court, who exchanges with her, across the black water streaked with evening gleams, fitful questions and answers.
Softley and Serra actually reproduce this image, or something like it, but the Maeterlinck quality – the mystery of something imminent, as yet unseen, as yet unspoken – can only come from the suggestiveness that the movie is compelled to banish. It’s a magnificent movie, but you might almost say that it’s a film of Henry James with the essence of Henry James left out.