The Wings of the Dove (1997) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

A very strong package. Novel by Henry James, exquisite photography, spectacular locales in England and Venice, a beautiful star, good acting and an unusually explicit nude scene.
It is possible to argue that this is an outstanding movie, although it received only limp support from the Academy. Carter was nominated as Best Actress, and the writer was nominated for best adaptation from another medium. The film was nominated for best cinematography and costume design, but not for best art direction, which was a criminal omission. The attention to detail in the sets is spectacular, so finely crafted that even the shades of blue are co-ordinated from scene to scene.


There is no hint of nudity until the final few minutes, and then we see one of the most explicit nude scenes ever done by a mainstream actress. Helena Bonham Carter is seen naked from every angle, include a surprisingly lingering camera angle up her bum.
I suppose the film was hurt by the same thing that kept me from enjoying it completely. It's a slow-paced, Victorian costume drama. On the surface it looks like a Merchant-Ivory snoozefest. But it's not, nor is it a chick-flick weeper (men and women score it identically at IMDb). It's a complex psychological study, and worth owning.

Here's the premise. Kate is in dire financial straits. Her mother is dead and her dad is a penniless derelict. Her mother was born into a rich family, but threw it all away for love. Kate now has the opportunity to return to society, if she heeds the advice and matchmaking recommendations of her wealthy aunt. Only one problem. Kate, like her mother, is already in love with a man who doesn't care about material possessions. This particular man is not a pauper, exactly, but an intelligent, crusading newspaper reporter, kind of a fin de siecle Ralph Nader.

There is one way that she can have both love and money. She concocts a plan in which her beloved reporter will seduce a dying American heiress with no real family. If the plan works, the heiress dies, leaves her money to the reporter, and the reporter marries Kate. That all sounds good except that Kate comes to love the heiress, who is not merely pathetic because of her health, but is a truly loving and kind person. Meanwhile, the newspaper reporter falls in love with the heiress for real.

This should work out anyway, at least by modern standards. I mean, so what? Despite the fact that Kate manipulates the reporter first into then out of the heiress' bed, the American girl leaves her fortune to him anyway. But these are not modern characters. The reporter says he will never take the money, and will marry Kate only if she'll do it without the cash. Kate responds that she'll do it without the cash if reporter boy can swear he still isn't in love with the memory of the heiress as his one true love. He can't.

The James characters are complex. If she can't have both, Kate doesn't know whether she wants the money or the man's heart, and her vacillation causes some twists along the way, including her betrayal of her own plan. If she had not caused the heiress to find out about the plan at one point, she would have ended up with the man and the money, although the man would still have had the American's love in his heart. Again, that's no big deal by modern standards. We now accept the reality of people having loved others besides ourselves. And modern women would probably prefer a husband who has loved another so nobly and purely over one who proved to be nothing more than a scheming co-conspirator. But this novel was written in 1902, and it was then believable that Kate would derail her own plan because she needed to be his one and only true love. The turn of the century was also the turn of these attitudes into modern one. If the story took place 25 years earlier, in 1877, a plot like Kate's would be considered utterly diabolical. James probably could not even have published the story at that time. On the other hand, if the story took place 25 years later, in flapper-era 1927, the sophisticated readers would have wondered, as we do, why the hell Kate screwed up her own plan. But Kate does not belong to either of those eras, she's trapped between Victorian conventionalism and modern pragmatism, and her muddled motivations make perfect sense in that context.

DVD info from Amazon.

2.35:1 letterbox widescreen. Great transfer of a beautifully rendered film.

No memorable features - a short featurette and the trailer.

Although I like the movie, and recommend it, it seems overpriced at $29.99 suggested retail, considering the minimal extras.

I think the most interesting part of the story is that everybody probably really knows what everyone else is doing, and it doesn't really matter. The American heiress probably knew that the whole thing was a set-up from the start, certainly before she was told, and even after she found out for sure, she still left the guy all her money. She might have halted the deception if she thought the two of them were heartless cons who didn't care a fig for her, but she sensed that the two schemers really loved her in spite of the con, so she more or less let it happen. Why not? She was getting exactly what she wanted out of the deal anyway. She could not have scripted it better for herself.

So all three characters left the unpleasant side of their arrangement largely unremarked, and pretended that everything was as it seemed to be.

At least for a while.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: Three stars and then some; close to three and a half.. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4, Apollo 84, Maltin 2.5. Maltin didn't follow the pack. He felt that the character's vacillations made them hard to relate to. I agree with that in principle, but I don't see it as a negative. Sure, there is no real "good guy", but that signifies that they are real and complex people.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.9. One's likelihood to enjoy it is age-related. People over 45 rated it 7.5 at IMDb, people 30-44 rate it 7.0, and people 18-29 only score it 6.5.
  • With their dollars ... It doesn't have a powerful appeal against the big-bucks young male target market, so it was not a blockbuster, but it was solid in a limited release. It took in $13 million in the USA on a maximum of 259 screens. A few million more overseas.

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