It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
What happens in Henry James takes place deep within stories where, on the surface, the characters go languidly about their lives of privilege. They subscribe to a code of what is done and what is not done. They know exactly what it means to be a gentleman or a lady; those titles are like decorations, to be worn invisibly at social occasions. And then in the privacy of their souls, some of James' characters darkly contemplate getting their way no matter what.
"The Wings of the Dove'' is the cold-blooded story of two British lovers who plot to deprive a rich American girl ("the richest orphan in the world'') of her heart and her inheritance. What makes it complicated--what makes it James--is that the two lovers really do like the rich girl, and she really does like them, and everyone eventually knows more or less precisely what is being done. The buried message is that when it comes to money, sex, love and death, most people are prepared to go a great deal further than they would admit. There is, if you know how to look for it, incredible emotional violence in the work of Henry James. This new film of his famous novel makes two significant changes. It moves the action up slightly, from 1902 to 1910. And it makes the British woman a little more sympathetic than she was in the book. The second change flows from the first. James' story, which he began writing in 1894, embedded the characters in the world of Victorian propriety. By 1910, the actions they contemplate, while still improper, were not unthinkable; modern relativism was creeping in. Kate Croy, whose desire fuels the story, was more selfish and evil in the James version; the film softens her into someone whose actions can almost be defended as pragmatism.
Kate, played with flashing eyes and bold imagination by Helena Bonham Carter, is a poor girl with a tenuous foothold in society. Her father is a penniless drunkard. Her mother is dead. She is taken in by her wealthy Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), who wants to marry her off to the best advantage--perhaps to Lord Mark (Alex Jennings). But Kate loves Merton Densher (Linus Roache), an ill-paid journalist who cheerfully admits he doesn't believe the things he writes. Maude forbids the marriage and even threatens to cut off the weekly shillings she pays Kate's father.
What is Kate prepared to do? Characters talk a great deal in Henry James, but are sometimes maddeningly obscure about what they mean (does any other novelist use the word "intercourse'' more frequently, while not meaning by that word or any other what we immediately think of?). They talk much less in this film, where facial expressions imply the feelings that are talked around in the novel. My guess is that Kate might have eventually married the odious Lord Mark, while continuing quietly to see Merton Densher.