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Not Getting the Lesson of the Master

Washington Square

a film directed by Agnieszka Holland

The Wings of the Dove

a film directed by Iain Softley

Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square is a movie about a shy and awkward young woman, Catherine Sloper, who falls in love with a smooth and beautiful young man. He is irresponsible and sybaritic, but he is also ardent and attentive, and he makes her bloom with passion and self-esteem. His suit is opposed, though, by the girl’s father, a widowed physician who despises his daughter and resents her luck in love. The doctor is convinced, against the opinion of everyone around him, that the only explanation for the young man’s interest must be his, the doctor’s, own substantial fortune; and though it takes him several years and requires remorseless hounding, he succeeds in killing off the relationship, and with it his daughter’s capacity for love.

Readers of the Henry James novel on which Holland’s movie is based will recognize a significant deviation. The novel makes it plain from early on that the suitor—his name is Morris Townsend—is a gold digger. In James’s story, when Dr. Sloper calls on Townsend’s sister for a character reference, she quickly confesses that her brother is a selfish and idle man who makes his way by preying upon women, and she warns the doctor to keep his daughter away from him. In Holland’s movie, the point of the scene is reversed: Townsend’s sister bristles at the suggestion that her brother is any less sincere than he pretends to be, and she practically throws the doctor out of her house.

As things turn out in the movie, the doctor is not entirely mistaken: when Townsend realizes that if he marries Catherine she will be disinherited, he abandons her. But we are made to feel that in his own self-centered way, he really does love her. He just can’t imagine life without the fortune he considers his due for allowing himself to make love to such a plain woman. Her money, as he tells Catherine when the crisis comes, is her “attribute”; his attribute, he says, is this, and he points to his own gorgeous face.

This is quite Jamesian. It’s just not what James himself saw in the story. In making Townsend unambiguously a mercenary from the beginning, James wanted to place the doctor in a complicated ethical light. From one point of view, Dr. Sloper is perfectly right: if his daughter marries Morris Townsend, he will spend her inheritance and make her miserable. Everyone except the doctor’s widowed sister, Lavinia, who is half in love with Townsend herself and who pathetically encourages a relationship she regards as thrillingly star-crossed, agrees with him. And yet from another point of view, which every reader is quick to share but which is not easy to articulate, he is clearly wrong. His wrongness is his refusal to credit his daughter with the capacity to understand or control her own situation, his certainty that he knows what is best for her better than she does. His wrongness is his rightness, an oppressive infallibility his daughter, dim though she may be, is willing to gamble on Townsend in order to escape.

In the movie, the doctor is in the wrong from the start, since at the start all he has to go on is a prejudice about his daughter’s dullness and her boyfriend’s glib charm. Dr. Sloper is played perfectly by Albert Finney (who has gotten unrecognizably stout) as a man whose prosperity and social polish conceal, but only barely, a brutal nature—a man whose air of gentility is the end product of a good deal of grim self-discipline. Maggie Smith, as Lavinia, is given the choicest lines and makes the most of them. “Take Byron’s advice,” she whispers urgently to Catherine as she is about to meet Townsend alone for the first time. “Be warm, but pure; amorous, but chaste.” Ben Chaplin (the third British actor in this New York story) is Townsend, who is portrayed not as a schemer, but simply as a young man whose narcissism is unembarrassed and perfectly understandable. Catherine adores him, his sister adores him, the camera adores him; why shouldn’t he do the same?

There is a hidden side to the doctor’s hostility, which Holland’s version of the story, by making Townsend’s appeal so plausible, helps us intuit. For the doctor, in a highly sophisticated and socially sanctioned way, is a kind of opportunist, too. He is, as James carefully explains in his opening pages, a clever man who has built his reputation on an astute understanding of the sort of treatment people expect from a superior physician. His explanations are a little pedantic and his prescriptions are a little inscrutable, a combination that matches perfectly his patients’ idea that they are getting the highest medical wisdom for their dollar.

I hasten to add,” James does not really hasten to add, “to anticipate any possible misconception, that he was not the least of a charlatan.” Of course not. He is just a man who has incorporated a suave and professionally advantageous knowingness perfectly into his own personality, and to considerable material benefit. And this is why he so quickly spots Townsend as a callow version of himself, a man who thinks his looks entitle him to a shortcut to the world’s esteem, a goal the doctor was once equally ambitious for, but which he had to reach by a much harder road. He is not about to sacrifice that esteem by being seen to give up his daughter to an idler whose ambitions he understands all too well. The scenes in which Morris sips the doctor’s sherry and puffs on the doctor’s cigars—scenes in which he imagines himself as a Dr. Sloper without the calluses—are a nice reminder of what is going on in this corner of the triangle.

Holland’s movie is an adaptation of James’s novel, but it is also, up to a point, a remake of William Wyler’s 1949 movie The Heiress, which was itself adapted from another adaptation, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s Broadway play. Holland has, in fact, borrowed some dialogue from The Heiress, and there are a few visual echoes of Wyler. Like the Goetzes, she has supplied the story with an ending of her own invention. But her account is much less stagey. She has a warmer feeling for her characters’ emotions, and a better sense of comedy. The other side of this greater expressionism, though, is that the movie can get a little broad.

Holland is best known as the director of Europa, Europa, a film about the adventures of a young German Jew in the Second World War that suggested, in its mixture of farce and horror, the influence of Lina Wertmuller. Wertmuller is about the last sensibility one would associate with James, whose intellectual decorum is so strict and whose sense of moral balance is so punctilious. Holland’s Washington Square is not Wertmulleresque, but it is not exactly understated, either. Catherine’s inability to measure up to her father’s idea of female accomplishment, for example, is established in a scene in which she wets her pants in front of him (she is eleven) when it’s her turn to sing in a birthday recital. And she really wets them: it sounds like a bucket of water is being spilled on the carpet. We know she’s a klutz because she’s continually dropping things, bumping into things, and having things fall out of her hair. When Morris abandons her, she chases after his carriage and ends by throwing herself, sobbing, in the mud.

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Catherine, and she works a little too hard at the part. Her face is an extremely variable weather pattern: it suggests insipidity, intelligence, desire, vacuity, determination, despair. Sometimes you think she’s sly and sometimes you think she’s spacey. To demonstrate social awkwardness she twitches; to demonstrate a lack of poise she mumbles as though her mouth were full of rocks. Her Catherine is in many ways the opposite of James’s, whose chief feature, for most of the novel, is her placid imperturbability. Still, if you are going to have an appealing Townsend you may as well have a distinctive Catherine. When they are sitting side by side playing piano duets, or kissing passionately in the parlor while the doctor is out, they make believable lovers. And the sense that there was something genuine between them gives the movie’s final scene, of his return and her rebuff, the right chill.

For exquisiteness of moral balance there must be few books to equal the three novels of James’s so-called “major phase,” of which The Wings of the Dove (1902) was the first. The new movie version is directed by Iain Softley, from a screenplay by Hossein Amini. The filmmakers make a big point, in the publicity accompanying their movie, of what they see as their modernizing of James. This they have accomplished in two ways: by (they say) making the character of Kate Croy sympathetic, and by moving the date of the story up to 1910. That they imagine James intended Kate to be unsympathetic suggests that they did not have a very clear understanding of the novel they were proposing to adapt. And pushing the date up to 1910 turns out to create more problems than it’s worth.

The principal benefit in changing the period from late Victorian to late Edwardian is that the characters can behave in a manner more congenial to contemporary taste. The women are allowed to wear Japanese-y, upper-crust-bohemian outfits and to smoke; the men are permitted drunken remarks with sexual innuendo; the party scenes are spiced with a vaguely risqué atmosphere; and so on. The difference these changes make in James’s story are summed up in the fact that the character of Aunt Maude is played by Charlotte Rampling.

In the novel, Aunt Maude is the maternal aunt of Kate Croy. Kate’s father is a scoundrel of a typically unspecified Jamesian kind; he has brought disgrace on the Croys, we don’t know how, and has abandoned Kate and her sister. When their mother dies, Kate is taken up by her Aunt Maude, now a widow of great wealth living in a huge pile on the edge of Hyde Park. The aunt proposes to arrange for Kate a great marriage, on the condition that she sever all ties with the unhappy Croys. The unhappy Croys, sensing future relief from their misery if Kate does indeed make a good match, encourage her in this course. Kate is reluctant to abandon them in this way, but she has another problem as well, which is that she is secretly engaged to a penniless newspaperman named Merton Densher.

Aunt Maude likes Mr. Densher fine, but thoroughly disapproves of his relationship with Kate, not so much on grounds that he is penniless (a common misperception about the novel) as on grounds that he is so clearly not destined for greatness. A poor man destined for greatness Aunt Maude would willingly subvent. She thinks she has found such a man in Lord Mark, who has no money of his own but does have some vague expectation of a parliamentary career. Lord Mark has the moral wit of a toad, though. Kate can’t stand him; but she can’t bring herself to turn her back on the money Aunt Maude represents, either, and she is thus unwilling to marry Densher, who doesn’t care about money but is sexually obsessed with Kate. Milly Theale is the dying American heiress who comes onto this scene. She is looking for a final passion in her life. It becomes Kate’s idea, of course, that Densher shall be that final passion, and that after Milly’s death they can, with her money, at last get married.

In the novel, Aunt Maude is obviously a Dr. Sloper figure. Kate’s secret nickname for her is the Britannia of the Market Place: she represents late-Victorian propriety in all its philistine grandeur. Charlotte Rampling, on the other hand, represents, to most movie-goers, a distinctly late-twentieth-century kind of kinky eroticism. James’s Aunt Maude is large, provincial, and overdressed. Charlotte Rampling’s is slinky, worldly, and chic. When she perches on Kate’s bed fingering her jewelry, or when she lovingly applies makeup to her niece’s beautiful face, she exudes an air of sexual predatoriness that is about as remote from James’s Aunt Maude as one can imagine.

The problem is that once you posit an atmosphere of relative lubricity, most of the tension in the story disappears. Who in this movie would care if Kate carried on a torrid affair with Merton Densher? The movie opens with Kate and Densher kissing and groping in an elevator. Later it has her visiting his rooms and curling up on his bed in a come-on position. (He’s on deadline, and begs off.) If these people aren’t already sleeping together, something is wrong besides the disapproval of Charlotte Rampling. But one of the high points in the novel is the moment when, in Venice, Kate does come to Densher’s rooms to give him what he wants. The whole moral weight of this gesture is lost when the cultural moment is altered.

She was somehow always in the line of the eye—she counted singularly for its pleasure,” is the way James describes Kate’s beauty. She is played here by Helena Bonham-Carter, who is very lovely but, in keeping with the “modernized” screenplay, a little too ripe. She’s a sexpot, though with nothing tawdry about her, and she is not subtle about using her allure to keep her lover in line. You can feel Densher’s particular pain. He is played by the English actor Linus Roache, who fits perfectly James’s description: “The difficulty of Densher,” he says, “was that he looked vague without looking weak.”

Alison Elliott, who is American, is not given quite enough to do as Milly. We have to fall in love with her a little for the climax to have its poignancy, but this Milly has a Teflon contemporaneity. “I believe in you,” she tells Densher earnestly over a candlelight dinner in Venice. “I have a good feeling with certain people.” Densher, though supposedly a newspaperman, sits through this with a straight face. It’s a Milly from Mendocino. Alison Elliott does, though, bear an uncanny resemblance to the Bronzino portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi that Milly is shown in the novel, and that makes her weep from the thought of her own death. (It’s probably unnecessary to add that this scene is missing from the movie. The characters do go to an art gallery; it’s an exhibition of erotic paintings by Gustave Klimt.)

Iain Softley’s first movie was Backbeat, about the Beatles in their early Hamburg days (and held together by a fabulous performance by Ian Hurt as the young John Lennon). His second movie was Hackers, a thriller. Neither would seem obvious preparation for a try at late James. That preparation seems to have involved a different source of inspiration: repeated viewings of The English Patient. The formula is, if you like formula movies, a great movie formula. You need a historical period close enough to make the characters seem modern but distant enough to make a high style of living—with champagne, fancy dress, servants, and plenty of leisure for love—plausible. Add actors who need no better excuse for falling all over one another passionately in the hallway or the elevator than the fact that they are fabulously good-looking, and, finally, an exotic locale, and a story of love and death, preferably with a moral surprise.

Given these givens, the director’s task is simply to make the whole mixture swirl. The camera looks down; it looks up; it goes in and out of focus. If the action takes us to Venice, it must be time for Carnival. The budget for this movie was too low for visual luxuriance on the scale of The English Patient. But they did their best.

Swirling, on the other hand, is not a way to render the peculiar intricacy of The Wings of the Dove‘s densely figured prose. James is not rushing about accumulating impressions; this is, in fact, a novel with very few scenes. He is instead always obsessively peeling, peeling away at his characters’ thoughts and motives. The weird (and it is, in its unremitting claim on one’s attention, weird) fascination of James’s late writing is how much he does with so little. The Wings of the Dove in particular is a novel about people who will themselves into ignorance, people who don’t want to know what is really going on. James devises for them all sorts of elaborate ways of not ever quite getting to the point. His dialogue is therefore supremely difficult, but it is the key to the drama. Shots of gondolas aren’t enough.

Modernizing Kate does make her sympathetic, but the easy way: she is exasperated by her lover’s passivity and she has legitimate reasons (in this version, a father who’s an opium addict) for appreciating the value of money. She visits her father (played by Michael Gambon as a dissolute wretch with a heart of gold) and weeps for his poverty and misery. It’s a stagey scene, and not quite believable, but it’s meant to soften our hearts to her scheming.

In the novel, though, Kate hates her father. Her refusal to abandon him arises not from her sense of pity, but from her sense of duty, a concept the filmmakers plainly have no use for. James isn’t, as they imagine, morally disapproving of Kate. (Moral approval and disapproval are, in any case, not very useful categories for understanding James’s fiction.) He’s interested in what he calls Kate’s “talent for life,” something Densher admires and fears. Densher tries, after his reactive fashion, to woo Milly, but he finds himself incapable of not telling her the truth about his attachment to Kate. When he returns to London and confesses this to Kate, she is disgusted. “She never wanted the truth,” she explains to her thick lover. “She wanted you.” She’s right, of course. It is Kate’s genius to have seen precisely the extent to which all the other characters would willingly deceive themselves in order to make her plan work out—all of them but one, and that, fatally, turns out to be Densher.

James had at one stage planned to end the novel with Kate taking the dead Milly’s money from the conscience-stricken Densher and going off to marry the toad. He wisely thought better of it, and cut the story at a point where it is still possible to feel that in ridding herself of Densher Kate will find some other way of realizing her talent for life. The movie, though, does tack on a final scene, in which Densher is shown debarking from a gondola in Venice and walking briskly out of the frame along a canal. It’s not clear what he’s doing back in Venice at this point in the story. Possibly the filmmakers just liked the footage.

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