Monday, December 7, 2015

An Accounting Ledger for a Heart

Film: The Wings of the Dove
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

When I see a movie like The Wings of the Dove, I remember that there was a time when Helena Bonham Carter was the darling of Merchant/Ivory. There was a time when she seemed to be central in just about every costume-y movie there ever was. And then I realize two things. First, The Wings of the Dove is not a Merchant/Ivory film. Second, Helena Bonham Carter almost always seems to be in costume-y things regardless of who is directing or producing.

Nonetheless, The Wings of the Dove takes place at the end of the Edwardian period. Young Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) lives at the behest of her stern and judgmental aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling). Kate’s father (Michael Gambon) is an opium addict, something that assisted Kate’s mother into an early grave. Maude has dedicated herself to preventing such a fate for her niece. Instead, she devotes herself to correcting Kate’s behavior and getting her introduced into good society.

We start with something akin to a love triangle. Maude is attempting to arrange an eventual marriage between Kate and Lord Mark (Alex Jennings), to whom Kate is completely unattracted. Instead, Kate favors Merton (Linus Roache), a radical and a journalist who has no money. Maude disapproves of Merton completely, telling Kate that if she sees him again, she’ll cut her off. Kate is untroubled by this, but is very troubled by the fact that this also means that her father will be cut off as well.

While Kate is dealing with not being able to see Merton, she is introduced to Milly (Alison Elliott) and her friend Susan (Elizabeth McGovern). Kate finds herself somewhat entranced by the open and free-spirted (and incredibly wealthy) Milly almost in spite of herself. Lord Mark seems to be pursuing her as well, and one night confesses to Kate that he is doing so because he needs her money and because Milly is actually quite ill and will probably die soon. Lord Mark’s goal is to marry Milly for her money, and then when she dies, marry Kate. Kate is repulsed by this, but has ideas of her own.

Essentially, Kate’s goal is to get Milly to fall in love with Merton and thus leave her fortune to him. Then, with Merton financially secure, Maude will no longer be able to disapprove of him, allowing her to marry the man she wishes. Kate goes to Venice with Milly and Susan and convinces Merton to come as well (since, with Maude’s insistence that he stay away, it’s the only chance he gets to see Kate). But genuine affection starts between Merton and Milly. Both wanting her plant to succeed and fearing that she will lose Merton if it does, Kate returns to London, leaving Merton with Milly and hoping for the best.

The strengths of The Wings of the Dove are also its weaknesses, at least in part. This is an emotionally cold and distant film. Even the passionate scenes seem to be coming from a distance, as if there is some sort of barrier between the characters and between the film and the audience. This is almost certainly intentional. Kate’s goals, after all, are mercenary and manipulative. There’s a required level of coldness that would be required for someone to even think of the sort of scheme she is planning. In any other context, Kate’s idea would be likened to a con game, with the victim being a tragically ill woman. It’s pretty heartless in a lot of respects.

But that emotional coldness also makes the premise harder to buy. Despite the apparent passion between Kate and Merton, it’s hard to see Kate as anything other than emotionless and manipulative. Merton seems often like less someone she loves and more someone she wants as a way to rebel against Maude. He’s a prize, much like Milly’s money. Finding a way to marry him would be winning the game that she’s playing. The coldness works for the story and only enhances the brutally icy ending, but it also interferes with what we’re supposed to buy into here.

Helena Bonham Carter is good, but again, the screenplay seems to work against her. A much more affecting performance is turned in by Linus Roache, who went strangely unnominated. I also liked the performances of Alison Elliott and Elizabeth McGovern in smaller roles. I get the nomination for Carter even if I wouldn’t nominate her (I haven’t decided), but I wonder at the lack of recognition for the rest of the cast.

The costuming is pretty fantastic as well, and it was justly nominated for this. Evidently, the film was moved forward a few years in history for some changes in fashion and to avoid being confused with the fin de si├Ęcle Merchant/Ivory collection of movies.

Is it good? I think it is. It’s pretty at the very least, and the performances are solid or better throughout. However, I had trouble concentrating on it. I think this came almost entirely from the fact that as much as I wanted to buy into the story being told, there was a part of me that focused on just how cruel so much of it seems. It’s very brutal for a romance, which makes it almost just a romance in name rather than in practice. It’s a bit less than the sum of its parts.

Why to watch The Wings of the Dove: A most unusual romance.
Why not to watch: It’s far more emotionally cold than a romance should be.


  1. I know I saw this, but it was 25-30 years ago and I essentially remember nothing about it.

    1. I imagine I'll be in the same position much sooner than 25-30 years from now.

  2. I liked this though it isn't something I return to very often. I see it with it's dark settings and shadowy motives as more of a Victorian noir with HBC a slightly less vicious (only slightly) Jane Greer or Lizabeth Scott.

    I agree Linus Roache is terrific here as is Alison Elliott but I recall at the time that Helena's turn as the morally bankrupt Kate stole all the attention since up to that point she was seen as the delicate Dresden doll sweetheart so her going bad was hugely against type. That she did it well added to the attention.

    Glad you mentioned the wardrobe it was wonderfully detailed. I remember an amazing hat that Elizabeth McGovern, I think, wore that had an intricate lace veil that was so striking and showed such attention to detail.

    1. All of the costuming was pretty astounding. The only real impression I do is of Tim Gunn from Project Runway, and I could only imagine him fashion-geeking out at the dresses on display. And the hats.

      I get your point about Helena Bonham Carter playing against type (at the time) for this, and you're probably right. But Linus Roache deserved some Academy love.