Sometimes I find 19th century British costume dramas a little hard to relate to. It’s not the time or the distance, it’s the rules and conventions of a social class that deserves resentment rather than sympathy. Yet somehow, the movies are all well made and I always get caught up in the story.
Persuasion, 1995, [?], was another.
Angels and Insects, 1996, [?], was another, but with a dark twist and outstanding costumes.
Double Indemnity, 1944, Billy Wilder, because the plot of this outstanding film noir is surprisingly similar.
The Wings of the Dove fits the pattern.
Kate (Helena Bonham Carter) and Merton (Linus Roache) are in love. Merton, a newspaper writer, would like to marry Kate. But Kate’s “job”, if you will, is to be a member of the British upper class. Her father lost all of her family’s money, but a wealthy aunt agreed to take care of her until she married a nice rich man. Naturally, a newspaper writer’s wages don’t count as “rich.”
Kate leads him on, but she always ends up giving him the cold shoulder, ultimately because he’s not marriageable.
Kate’s American friend Millie (Alison Elliot) stops in for a visit on her way to Venice. At a party, Millie catches a glimpse of Merton and likes what she sees. Kate realizes that if Merton were introduced to Millie, he might forget about her. It appears that she is trying to spare him from the heartbreak of their inevitable breakup. Merton sees what Kate is doing and resents her for it. He is still in love with Kate, and will accept no substitute.
The three of them, along with a fourth friend (Elizabeth McGovern) end up on holiday in Venice together, where their interactions are quite complicated. Let’s sum up: Millie has fallen for Merton. Merton has no feelings for Millie because he is still in love with Kate. Kate loves him but can’t marry him, so on the one hand she’s trying to match him up with someone who will make him happy, but on the other hand she’s jealous of them as a couple.
A clear solution presents itself to Kate when she realizes that Millie is very sick — dying, in fact. At this point she decides that Merton should marry Millie until she dies. Millie will leave her money to Merton, who will then be rich enough to marry Kate. She lets Merton know of her schemes and, since it will help him win Kate, he reluctantly agrees.
Kate leaves Venice so that the two M’s can be alone together. Merton finds that pretending to love Millie is a lot like actually loving her. He’s not sure he can separate the two. Kate finds that she’s not so sure she really wants her Merton falling in love with and marrying anyone else. The brilliant scheme proves to be painful to all involved. Without revealing the details, suffice it to say that the situation ends badly. The title refers to the object of Merton’s vain hope that something might lift him from his predicament.
One is left with feelings of regret and despair. What started as such a promising relationship was damaged by greed, anger, and jealousy. An interesting thought struck me after the movie was over, and that is that The Wings of the Dove almost fits the story line of a film noir. A couple conspires to cheat someone out of their money so they can live happily ever after. Their involvement in the deception makes each less attractive to the other, and after a few things go wrong, the whole idea seems like an awful life-ruining mistake. I wouldn’t call The Wings of the Dove a film noir, but the comparison is interesting.
As I have acknowledged before, I am not a wonderful judge of acting, but I liked the performances from Roache and Elliot. Roache successfully conveyed his character’s ambivalence toward Millie: near the end, he hugs her, at first staring into space, as if he’s thinking about his plan with Kate, then giving that up to fully embrace Millie. Millie’s part didn’t require as much range, but Elliot gave her the necessary bubbly personality that made her irresistible.
I will probably file away The Wings of the Dove in the same low-traffic corner of my mind as Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. Their settings are far removed from my personal experience — geographically, historically, and socially. Still, the movies are well made and the stories inevitably win me over.