Novelist Henry James - Wikimedia
Novelist Henry James has the unique capability of creating three-dimensional characters whose flaws and failings, as well as their positive attributes, are seen and understood readily by the reader. You may be familiar with some of his other writings, including “Portrait of a Lady” and “Washington Square,” both of which have been adapted to the screen. This film version of James’ novel “The Wings of the Dove” does a remarkable job of allowing the viewer to unmask the protagonists, not only through their dialogue but also through their facial expressions.
The opening scenes of the film take place in London in 1910. We are introduced to Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter), who has been raised by her wealthy Aunt Maud (Charlotte Rampling). Kate’s mother died when she was very young, and her father (Michael Gambon) is a drunkard and opium addict who had whittled away the family fortune through his addictive habits. Aunt Maud has aspirations for Kate to marry into wealth, and supplies her with jewelry and clothing in order to attract a high quality husband.
Helena Bonham Carter - Wikimedia
Kate, however, has entered a secret engagement with a low-paid journalist, Merton Densher (Linus Roache), who has no bright prospects for his future. Aunt Maud disapproves of the alliance and has warned Kate that she will take away her privileges and also the few shillings she passes on to Kate’s father each week if Kate continues to pursue this dead-end romance.
Aunt Maud has a suitor in mind for Kate, Lord Mark (Alex Jennings), who is very much in the social scene, seeking a wife. Though Kate is not at all interested in Lord Mark, she attends his dinner party where she is introduced to an American traveler on her way to Venice, Millie Theale (Alison Elliott). Millie has been left a huge fortune worth millions of dollars and has no relatives with whom to share it. She is basically an orphan, albeit a wealthy orphan. Kate is captivated by the attractive Millie who reciprocates, and they become fast friends. Meanwhile, Merton has crashed the party, knowing that Kate is there, and he too is introduced to Millie.
Millie later reveals to Kate that she is enamored with Merton and would like to get to know him better. Kate is careful to deny any interest in Merton herself and says he is merely a family friend. Millie asks Kate if she would like to accompany her and her companion Susan (Elizabeth McGovern) to Venice, and includes Merton in the invitation also. Aunt Maud retrieves an expensive piece of jewelry she had given Kate, with the snide remark that she had better get herself another trinket lest people think she is Millie’s maid, along for the trip.
Elizabeth McGovern - Wikimedia
As an aside, Elizabeth McGovern has become very well-known through her role as Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham in the British television series Downton Abbey.
A Nefarious Plan
In a low-key conversation with Lord Mark, Kate learns that Millie has a terminal illness. Lord Mark confides to Kate that, although he would prefer to marry Kate, he intends to pursue Millie with the idea of having a short-lived marriage to the sickly girl, resulting in inheriting her estate in order to shore up his own dwindling fortune. Much of the conversation is couched in less assertive words, but Kate, as well as the audience, surmises his nefarious plan.
Gondolas of Venice - Wikimedia
Trip to Venice
The movie was filmed on locations in London and Venice. The panned shots of Venice are breathtaking, showing St. Mark’s Square and the gondolas which are part of Venice culture. Needless to say, the wardrobes of the three girls on their Venetian excursion are awesome and add to the picturesque background of the beautiful city.
Merton agreed to join the ladies in Venice after being briefed by Kate on the fateful circumstances of Millie’s life. Taking her cue from Lord Mark’s plan to woo Millie, Kate devises a similar scheme whereby Merton would court Millie and marry her, executing Lord Mark’s idea for themselves. Merton is hesitant to carry out the pretense, being drawn to Millie’s virtuous nature; the three have become unconditional friends which tends to make the idea distasteful to him.
In order to allow the plan to evolve, Kate announced that she would return to England, leaving Millie, Susan, and Merton to explore Venice further. Merton becomes more mesmerized by Millie’s charms, and provides her with the companionship she had wanted desperately from him.
The Henry James Effect
This scenario could have several endings. Seemingly, the reader has already devised his/her own solution. Perversely, the wicked Henry James had his own notion of a suitable ending.
Just be warned that near the end, there are some graphic sex scenes which may not be acceptable to some viewers. Nevertheless, the film deserved its four Oscar nominations, one for Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as Best Actress in a Leading Role.