(UK 1997 101m) DVD1/2
Horror hath overwhelmed me
p David Parfitt, Stephen Evans d Iain Softley w Hossein Amini novel Henry James ph Eduardo Serra ed Tariq Anwar m Edward Shearmur art John Beard cos Sandy Powell
Helena Bonham Carter (Kate Croy), Linus Roache (Merton Densher), Alison Elliott (Millie Theale), Elizabeth McGovern (Susie Stringham), Charlotte Rampling (Aunt Maude), Alex Jennings (Lord Mark), Michael Gambon (Lionel Croy),
When Helen Hunt received her Academy Award it wasn’t without a hint of incredulity, as if she, too, in good humour, realised the injustice. In her speech she told of how, when she saw Judi Dench in Mrs Brown, she believed she’d seen the Academy Award winner. Judi was gracious in defeat, and it’s true Judi would have been a far more deserving winner. Yet giving Judi the award would have been recognition for a lifetime’s work, and perhaps a greater injustice lurked in the shadows…to Helena Bonham Carter.
Softley and writer Amini updated Henry James’ novel to the Edwardian era, and though the improved décor and class analysis was even more acute then than in Victorian times, was there also something else lurking there. James’ work, like many of his studies of the upper classes, was as cutting as a surgeon’s scalpel, performing an autopsy on a society obsessed with wealth and the ostentatious presentation of said wealth. In moving the period forward, the piece seems to be equally a post mortem on the Merchant-Ivory-Forster series of which Helena Bonham Carter was such a fixed ingredient. Kate Croy was thus the antidote to her earlier heroines, and in character she certainly was. Amini reduces the story to a ménage à trois where Kate Croy is an impoverished woman reliant on her aunt’s patronage and unable to marry the man she loves – an equally moneyless Merton – for fear of losing her inheritance. When she’s introduced to and befriends Millie, an American girl dying of some pulmonary disorder with a fortune and no-one to give it to, she hits on the idea of getting Merton to seduce her to get her money, so they can live free of her aunt’s demands.
Easy it is to point the finger at the selfishness of the protagonists, especially Kate, and yet the makers’ seem more intrigued by the society that, in forcing people into such actions, is doomed to rot. There always was a sense of inherent decay about Venice, already explored by Evelyn Waugh, Nicolas Roeg and Luchino Visconti, and it’s a pestilence that runs to affairs of the heart. Its characters, moving in and around San Marco and the canals and byways, seem more and more like rodents, and therefore one must ask whether, as the trio visit San Marco, and we barely notice something scurrying across the floor of the basilica – could it be a mouse? – whether even that was deliberate or just one of those lucky flukes. It’s no coincidence either that the opening sequence is set underground, a superbly controlled, smouldering dream, where Kate meets Merton on the underground, proceeding to go up to the light of day in the same lift, turning to each other to kiss passionately. Then, quickly, we awaken to Helena’s gorgeous hazel orbs, with a touch of mascara applied as if to prepare her for her own death.
Certainly Helena’s mournful demeanour is something to behold, as if the eternal rain – Venice, London, it’s always raining – has sunk to her very depths. She knows she can lead Merton’s bull like a toreador to a passionate alley tryst, but it’s as if she already fears that their relationship is doomed. It ends with the most shattering sex scene in living memory, as Helena strips, rolls up like a foetus, and prepares for a sexual release that, in its dying orgasm, represents the death of their love. It’s heartrending stuff, and a eulogy for falling in love with a memory, designed, costumed and scored to perfection and gorgeously shot by Serra. Yet amongst the praise for Bonham Carter, let us not forget her accomplice, the superb and underused Linus Roache, who drifts effortlessly from romantic ardour to contemptuous self-loathing. Dove is one of the best adaptations of James on film, Helena’s redemption, and one of the neglected greats of the nineties.