"She is in love with life, her dreams of it have been immense, and
she clings to it with passion." So wrote Henry James in his writer's
notebook in November, 1894- his first entry on his new novel, The Wings
Of The Dove. The words referred to the character who inspired the story,
Millie Theale, a life-hungry young American with a fatal secret. Years earlier,
James had himself known a young American, his beloved cousin Minny Temple,
who died tragically, an event that left an impermeable stain on James' heart.
He was later to write that he created The Wings of The Dove to "lay
the ghost by wrapping it in the beauty and dignity of art."
He surrounded Millie Theale with two other equally complicated souls - the uncompromising Kate Croy and the sensitive journalist Merton Densher, who some have observed bears more than a passing resemblance to his creator. when these three come together in a dangerous game involving money, ambition and sexual desire, the result is one of James' most intricate, dense and thematically "modern" novels - "modern" in the sense that it both marks and explores the shift from 19th century to 20th century behavior and situations.
It was this latter quality that drew lain Softley to take a fresh look at The Wings of The Dove more than a century after that first notebook entry. Softley, best known for his energetic take on the early Beatles history in "Backbeat," was struck by the core of unexpectedly current themes at the heart of James' turn-of-the-century work - by the ambiguous, unpredictable and complex nature of his character's actions and souls.
His vision was to re-focus the novel through a contemporary prism of psychologically probing story-telling - to bring out of James' world of fading 19th century repression and threatening modern freedoms three intriguing characters who make their own complicated sexual choices.
"I am interested in any story about people who are swimming against the tide, who exist at odds with the conventions of the society they are living in. All those ingredients are in The Wings Of The Dove," Softley explains. "But I wanted to make a film that was more passionate and psychological than a literal adaptation. It was the basis of my interest in the project that I would be allowed to do something cinematic in its conception- with a boldness and sexiness and a pace that are thoroughly 1990s."
Softley filmed THE WINGS OF THE DOVE with an emphasis on facial close-ups and richly textured performances that reveal the hidden feelings and motivations that are the focus of James' prose. But when it came to approaching the characters, Softley admits that he chose empathy and a sense of connection where James brought a harsher 19th century sense of judgment. Readers of The Wings of The Dove will recognize that the Kate Croy of Softley's film is less ruthless and more sympathetically entrapped by the consequences of her unrelenting desires.
"It was a big intention of mine to try to understand the choices the characters in THE WINGS OF THE DOVE make from their own perspective and not to treat the story strictly as a morality tale. I wanted to get a young film audience to understand their goals and empathize with Kate and Millie and Merton," explains Softley.
"In the case of Kate, I felt that James was especially hard on her because she represents the modern world. I wanted to present her to audiences without any moralizing. I wanted to reveal her as a modern woman who has incredible passion and finds herself caught between her scheming and her desire. If she was more cold-hearted, her dilemma wouldn't be as acute and that is really the core of the story. She is the classic heroine trying to change the hand fate has dealt her by manipulating the situation. Yet through her manipulation, she actually makes it more likely that she will lose everything."
Screenwriter Hossein Amini, who previously adapted Thomas Hardy's Jude The Obscure, took on the daunting task of bringing the story's very contemporary issues of sexual conquest and consequences to the fore.
"I was concerned about even attempting to do a screenplay inspired by The Wings of the Dove until I got to the end of the book and saw that it was really about this sudden dramatic moment between three people," explains Amini. "After that, I couldn't help but see it in terms of a film noir - a story of triangles and conspiracies and deceptions. The character of Kate shares much in common with the modern femme fatale, whilst Merton is a man trapped in the very modern throes of obsessional love. Interestingly, I later heard that Dashiell Hammett was a fan of Henry James, that James' exploration of humans damaging each other emotionally through deception influenced Hammett's writing."
The filmmakers decided from the outset that a blind faithfulness to the original work would not serve their movie. Says Hossein Amini: "You don't have a choice with James other than to do a very free adaptation. He doesn't really write in scenes and the priority has to be to make the story work in the film medium. To do that, we put the emphasis on the emotional side of his story while allowing the texture to be more cinematic."
In bringing their new perspective to the story, the filmmakers made other changes to James' original work. "The biggest change was probably giving the characters more time together in Venice," says Hossein Amini. "whereas James has them always chaperoned by Aunt Maude, we gave them more free- dom and opportunities to be alone in intimate situations. The idea of three young people going away on holiday together is quite a modern concept and we wanted to capture that. We wanted to capture the energy of three young people whose run-away emotions become dangerous."
Amini also made changes to the book's final scene. He explains: "when I read that scene I immediately saw it as a love-making scene because it is about lust and corruption and getting to the emotional truth of things. It's a moment in which you could have the most intense sex of your life, while knowing that something is terribly, irrevocably wrong."
Finally, lain Softley decided to move the time setting of the story from its 1902 publication date to 1910, to the very peak of turn-of-the-century change and chaos.
"It places the story more specifically at the beginning of the 20th Century, the very beginning of modern times," points out lain Softley. "Visually, 1910 was completely different from a decade before. Electricity was suddenly more prevalent. The London Underground had just been built. And fashion was changing dramatically. There were revolutions and changes all around. It was the beginning of the modern world as we now recognize it - and the beginning of the way we act within it."
Once Hossein Amini had honed Henry James' text into its most psychological
and romantic aspects, the challenge was to find a group of actors capable
of bringing those qualities to life on the screen
Key to everything was finding the right Kate Croy. Explains lain Softley: "For Kate, we needed someone who could play both her manipulative and vulnerable sides, who could make her a thoroughly contemporary woman. when I read with Helena Bonham Carter, she embodied all these characteristics."
Carter, who is best known for her work in such classical adaptations as "A Room With A View" and "Howard's End," was immediately intrigued by bringing a darker, more contemporary edge to a turn-of-the-century character. She liked that Softley intended the role to be highly charged, emotional, never for a second aloof or repressed. She says: "what really attracted me and what makes Kate so interesting is that in the script she is really quite a minx. She is deliciously unsympathetic, yet very alluring. She has been emotionally manipulated in her life, and in turn becomes a manipulator. There is a little bit of Kate in all of us."
Contrasting Kate Croy's devious side is the disarming openness of Millie Theale - but lain Softley didn't want to cast someone too angelic. "I wanted an actress who could portray Millie's graciousness, but who had a surprising down-to-earth quality as well," says the director. "Alison Elliott has this radiance that we were immediately drawn to. She exposed an inner strength that is not winsome in any way."
Elliott, who recently came to attention for her moving role as a young ex-con trying to remake her life in "The Spitfire Grill," also came to see that Millie Theale has a lot more going on under the surface than mere sweetness. "when I started working on the script, I got past surface assumptions that she was a little 'goody two shoes' and found her far more complex. I thought about the issue of her health, what it means to truly be alive and what it means to love. I found within her a human being who comes from a very real place."
Perhaps the most difficult role to cast was that of Merton Densher, the journalist who lets himself be lured into Kate's devious plan. Explains Softley: "We needed someone who was on the one hand able to be something of an observer, as he watches and absorbs the story of the two women. On the other hand, he needed to be someone they could both fall totally in love with."
Softley found the combination in Linus Roache, who makes a much anticipated return to the screen following his acclaimed feature debut as the lead in Antonia Bird's controversial and award-winning "Priest."
"Linus was exactly the right person - he is a unique actor who can, in a quite effortless way, be both dynamic and hesitant," says Softley.
Roache was drawn to the challenge and romance of portraying such a complex and conflicted man. "Merton yearns for fulfillment through this intense, romantic love affair he is not allowed to have and through someone who is perpetually keeping him at bay. Such wounded individuals are incredibly challenging to think about and play."
One clings, even in the face of the colder stare, to one's prized Venetian privilege of making the sense of doom and decay a part of every impression... What was most beautiftil is gone; what was next most beautiftil is thank goodness going...
As Kate Croy, Merton Densher and Millie Theale move from genteel conversations
and muted intentions to overt passion and intrigue, so too does the story's
setting move from London to Venice. Henry James wrote evocatively of both
cities and lain Softley was committed to bringing them to life as James
used them in his novel London as a symbol of European wealth, tradition
and manners and Venice as a metaphor for beauty, decadence and things that
cannot last forever - yet also without resorting to the standard cinematic
portrait of their famous landscapes.
"I was very keen to have audiences look at the cities of London and Venice with fresh eyes," states Softley. "For instance, London is not presented as that of the tourist fantasy or as the caricatured Dickensian nightmare. I also wanted to portray Venice in 1910 as akin to Marrakech in the 1960's, a sensual city people visited to find themselves."
Production took place over the summer of 1996, shooting eight weeks in London and four weeks in Venice. The London sequences were shot in stately homes at Luton Hoo and Knebworth at the Richmond Fellowship as well as on the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Softley also recreated a turn-of-the-century London Underground station at Shepperton Studios for the film's opening scene, in which the newly installed train system gleams as a symbol of the speeding approach of the modern age.
Production then moved to Venice, one of Henry James' favorite cities and a location with a rich cinematic history. Amongst the massive palazzos, gothic arches and fading antiquities of this city-in-the-sea, Softley found the ultimate backdrop for James' labyrinthine tale of three characters trapped by the consequences of their desires.
Says Softley of Venice: "Every filmmaker dreams of shooting in Venice. Each dawn, each sunset in this timeless, decaying city, which is at once immortal and transient, reminds us of everything that is beautiful and tragic in life. THE WINGS OF THE DOVE embodies the same sense of ambivalence with its themes of love and money, friendship and deception, sex and death, making the city a perfect setting for this intriguing, ambiguous romantic triangle."
Even more perfect, the production had the opportunity to shoot in the very location where James wrote The Wings Of The Dove. The Palazzo that Millie rents on her fateful trip to Venice is the same one where James was a guest at the turn of the century. The Palazzo Leporelli (also known as the Palazzo Barbaro) is just off the Grand Canal, entered through a water gate opening into a high-ceilinged gallery and a sunny open court.
For more than a century, the home has belonged to the American Curtis family, intellectual Bostonians who have entertained painters, poets, novelists and exiled Americans since the 19th century. James spent many months living there and it has been widely asserted that he modeled Millie's Palazzo after the home. Descendants of the Curtis family still living in the Palazzo invited the filmmakers to use the grounds and any original furnishings that were available, some that had been there in the days when James frequented the house.
Since there are no prop houses in Venice, the production also scoured the private homes of the city looking for authentic turn-of-the-century furnishings and accessories.
The production also filmed in such world famous locations as St. Mark's Square, the Basilica San Marco, on and around the Grand Canal and the Salute Church among others - no easy feat at the height of tourist season and with the added difficulty of having to haul cast, crew and equipment around in barges.
Softley particularly wanted to bring out the city's more exotic side. "Venice at the turn of the century was on the extreme of European culture," he explains. "It was multiethnic with a lot of Arab, African and gypsy influence, which Mussolini later tried to erase. There would have been Casbah-style markets. There are the labyrinths of the canal system. It was a place you could never really know in its entirety."
Softley and production designer John Beard used this perpetual sense of mystery to their advantage - evoking the unknown corners of the human heart through the twists and turns of Venetian avenues.
The director also worked closely with cinematographer Eduardo Serra to capture the ineffable nature of Venice at night. Serra in turn drew on the paintings of Venetian artist Ettore Tito for inspiration. Softley describes the work of Tito, and by extension Serra: "Tito worked with bold, bright colors, that emphasized the innate romanticism of Venice and the atmosphere of a lost era."
The task of capturing the turn-of-thecentury atmosphere of THE WINGS
OF THE DOVE was also placed at the feet of Academy Award-nominated costume
designer Sandy Powell ("Orlando"). Powell wanted the costumes
for the film to not only set the time and place but the emotions that run
beneath the fabrics she created.
She also aimed to capture an era in which fashion was changing as rapidly as the world's values - becoming looser, more expressive and casual. Women's clothing in particular shifted radically during this time - as the corseted, buttoned-up look of the 19th century gave way to a more relaxed and openly sexual style.
"The period in which THE WINGS OF THE DOVE is set is a real turning point in the history of fashion," points out Powell. "Clothing became a lot less restrictive."
Following the film's visual style, Powell also created a stark contrast between the clothing styles of London and Venice. In London, the characters wear chic outfits with the daring feeling of contemporary high fashion, clothes that herald the start of the more provocative "Twenties" fashions. But in Venice, their costumes become more body-conscious, more fanciful and free-flowing.
Powell describes her vision: In Venice, I wanted to enhance the fact that the characters had been totally removed from the repression of city life. There is a release and a liberation that is reflected in their flowing, unstructured garments. I was keen to avoid a 'cream lace' look and instead the costumes in Venice feature lighter, brighter colors and have more of an ethnic, North African look.
Powell's body-sculptured dresses worn in Venice were inspired by the famous pioneering Venetian-based designer Fortuny, whose influence has inspired designers throughout the 20th Century, including Issey Miyake's contemporary work.
Summarizes lain Softley: "There is a softness and sensuality to the Fortuny-inspired designs that the women wear. They are like pre-Raphaelite models - it's almost as if the female characters are becoming part of an allegorical world as they move through Venetian society. The period trappings fall away and they are at once modern and timeless."
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