Ian Softley’s The Wings of the Dove , from the screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Henry James, is both good cinema and a good approximation of James, though no movie adaptation can ever meet the challenge of providing what screenwriters once described as “equivalences” for some of the richest and most majestic prose in the English language. Still, Mr. Softley and Mr. Amini have come as close as could be humanly expected in getting to the heart of one of the Master’s densest and most difficult late novels. They are assisted in no small measure by cinematographer Eduardo Serra, production designer John Beard and costume designer Sandy Powell in capturing the sinister opulence of early 20th-century London and Venice for the heart-rending conspiracy involving the well-cast Helena Bonham Carter as the seemingly mercenary Kate Croy; Linus Roache as the doubly bedeviled and guilt-ridden Merton Densher; and Alison Elliott as Millie Theale, the unexpectedly discerning and generous victim of her friends’ duplicity.
Millie is American and rich. Kate and Densher are English and poor. Nothing could be simpler for the purposes of cheap melodrama, and nothing was further from James’ mind when he composed his dark and deep masterpiece. James, like Austen, is seriously concerned with the effect of money on matrimonial maneuvers, but writing a century later, and about two civilizations instead of one, James ends with untidy impasses instead of Austen’s tidy resolutions. He also stands at the precipice of modern womanhood as Austen does not quite.
Mr. Softley and Mr. Amini do not and cannot capture all the nuances in James’ marvelous, character-analyzing paragraphs that establish, among other things, the tragic dimensions of Kate Croy’s various dilemmas. Warned by both her impecunious father (played by Michael Gambon) and her munificent but meddlesome Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling) not to marry the penniless journalist Densher and lose her social position, Kate sees a way out by persuading Densher to marry the dying Millie, and then, after Millie’s death, take his place with Millie’s inherited wealth in society alongside Kate.
What fatally undermines the plan is an attack of jealousy on Kate’s part over Densher’s deepening affection for Millie, a surge of guilt on Densher’s part over the injustice done to Millie with his complicity, and of Millie’s remarkable spirit of forgiveness toward both Kate and Densher. Indeed, Millie is almost too good to be true in the book, and her character is not as convincingly developed by James as are Kate and Densher.
Here the casting of the vigorous and spirited Alison Elliott as Millie gives the movie an advantage over the novel. Not that Ms. Carter and Mr. Roache do not render Kate and Densher in masterly fashion through all of the phases of their tortured relationship in London and in Venice. I could have done without the gratuitous nudity of the ending. Not simply because it is grotesquely un-Jamesian in spirit, but also because it does not further illuminate the characters or clarify their guilt-ridden feelings toward each other and toward the intrusive ghost of the sainted Millie.
Elizabeth McGovern as Susan, Millie’s well-meaning companion and chaperone, and Alex Jennings as the pompous Lord Mark, who becomes Kate’s instrument of revenge against Densher for taking his work too seriously, round out a superb ensemble of Jamesian pilgrims across the byways of the human heart. The first eye contact exchanged between Kate and Densher on the just recently completed London Underground Railway reminds us with a start that James was leading us into the modern world from which we have not yet emerged even as we await the new millennium. It is a darker world than Austen knew and articulated, and a more challenging world for women. Along with Ibsen’s Nora and Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle, Kate Croy came to believe that a woman, for the first time in human history, could act in such a way as if she expected to have it all. It is no wonder that actresses are dying to do James with the same feeling of escape from mainstream male-star bondage they have enjoyed through the 90’s in the women-oriented vehicles of Austen and Forster.
Gattaca Made Me Feel In-Valid
Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca turns out to be one of the best movies I have seen this year, and I couldn’t be more surprised. Actually, I had to be dragged to see it by a friend who had a hunch it might be interesting. The reviews had been mixed, but that was not the problem with me. I doubt that there is a single sci-fi or horror film in my top 100 favorites of all time. The imaginary, the supernatural, the heavenly and the hellish alike seem redundant in a medium that makes the real world magical. Besides, contemporary futurist enterprises tend to make what is to come as sour and depressing as possible. Everything’s going downhill, and we’re all going to wind up in prison garb while some version of Big Brother stares down at us. Pfooey.
Why then do I like Gattaca , situated sometime in the near-future where the only form of discrimination and stratification is the DNA reading at birth, a reading that determines one’s future whether as a “Valid” or as an “In-Valid”? The Valids get the best jobs, and the highest incomes. The In-Valids are restricted to the most servile tasks. Microchip technology has presumably progressed to the point where a lock of one’s hair, a drop of one’s blood or urine, is sufficient to set the In-Valid alarms into action. What is our hero, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), to do? At birth, he was stamped an In-Valid because of a congenital heart defect in his genetic code. His younger brother, born a Valid, was given his father’s name, Anton, and bitter sibling rivalry ensued. Vincent always dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but that career was denied him as an In-Valid. Enter a black-market gene-switcher (Tony Shalhoub) with a Valid match for Vincent in Jerome, an Olympic swimmer crippled in a car accident, and willing to sell his genetic heritage for enough money to keep up his life style. All this doesn’t sound very plausible or convincing except as a pretext to keep you on the edge of your seat for fear that Vincent could be exposed at any moment.
By this time, however, I began to notice that Gattaca was a very stylized, artificial, elegant and carefully controlled artwork with a lyrical musical score that seemed inappropriate for the currently predictable spasms of violence, horror, paranoia and pervasive malignancy. I had imagined beforehand that Vincent had to murder someone to make the genetic switch. Instead, his alter ego (Jude Law)-initially named Jerome and then Eugene, after Vincent has become Jerome-evolves into a romantic character in his own right.
Uma Thurman plays Irene, Vincent’s (Jerome’s) co-worker at the same space station Vincent, the birth In-Valid, worked as a janitor before he, as Jerome, the impostor Valid, obtained employment as a prospective astronaut. Gore Vidal is surprisingly authoritative and self-confident as Director Josef, Vincent’s superior. Alan Arkin is unsurprisingly effective as a police investigator called in after a high official in the space program is murdered. A stray hair sample from an In-Valid illegally on the premises leads to several more plot twists, which I should not divulge at this time. But the plot itself is not the point here, nor the cautionary implication that genetic engineering can go too far in curtailing individual freedom.
No, what amazed me was that, in what I have always regarded as an uncongenial genre, I was reminded of a much earlier time in my moviegoing when I went to see people on the screen who were better than I was, better looking, of course, but also braver, kinder, more heroic and idealistic, more ambitious and determined, more competent and professional, more exemplary in every way. Nowadays, I go to the movies to see people who are much worse than I am, more monstrous and sadistic, more cynical and lustful, more deranged and degenerate, and, almost always, more violent.
Some critics complained of the lack of chemistry between Mr. Hawke and Ms. Thurman. I rejoiced in the dignity and restraint of their relationship. I rejoiced also in the extraordinary generosity of crucial characters at crucial times. I rejoiced also in the triumph of the human spirit against genetic adversity, and the unfashionable belief in the theory of progress as applied to the realms of both inner and outer space. When Vincent is launched into space with no guarantee that he will live to return, Gattaca soars with him as everything the more pretentious Contact tried to be, and wasn’t. Mr. Niccol is another new writer-director to watch carefully in the future.