JAMES IN HEAT

Henry James’ fancy, elongated prose is amongst American literature’s most romantically decadent. His extraordinary gift is in using syntax as masturbatory word play: without ever getting explicit, and without ever getting to some rewarding conclusions, he manipulates his way into our forbidden zone of private thought that is unnerving; we’re spooked by what he knows about us. But James isn’t sexy; he’s a highly structured parlor game host who downplays the libidinous, and this, more than the academic guessing of what he really means in what he writes, is why most movie versions of his work don’t excite us—the moviemakers applaud themselves for having shown their respect for him, instead of really getting off on him. This may be why Iain Softley’s movie of The Wings of the Dove, despite being considerably altered, is the most satisfying Jamesian movie since Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Softley has elevated James’ parlor game to a very festering sexiness—he’s dared to show James in heat. Of course purists will argue that Mrs. Lowder is for all intents and purposes gone, and that Venice’s overpowering ambiance usurps just about everything else. Might be worth a reprimand if Softley hadn’t two actors who enhance James’ prettified hothouse atmosphere. Helena Bonham Carter—her pale, sickly white skin superbly contrasted in smoldering darks by costumer Sandy Powell—gives one of those rare “all looks” performances; you know this woman named Kate immediately as you catch sight of her actions in an elevator. She’s so “prodigiously” Jamesian that nothing is allowed to get in her way—except James. Though her first love scene with Linus Roache as Merton suggests something out of Fatal Attraction, there’s no questioning the attraction; these two waste not a moment establishing their linkage—their socially spoiled baggage. With a nearly sculptured nose, Roache is the epitome of James’ wrinkled-suited offering. (He’s hardly a hero, he’s a sacrifice.) Alison Elliott’s Milley is beset by her resemblance to Amy Irving; not fatal, but a close call. Oscar nominations for Hossein Amini’s adapted screenplay, Powell’s costumes, Eduardo Serra’s photography and Bonham Carter’s leading actress performance, which also was cited as the year’s best by close to a dozen critics associations.

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