by Roderick Conway Morris

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Of Mortal Love


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 6 September 1997

 

Physical passion plays a prominent role in Henry James's "The Wings of the Dove," creating a hazard for contemporary filmmakers who might be tempted to overemphasize that the author, generally associated with more cerebral investigations of human relations, not only knew about sex but even wrote about it.

Rather than focusing on this, however, the film's director, Iain Softley, and scriptwriter, Hossein Amini, have tended, by modern standards at least, toward an almost Jamesian restraint. The result is an outstanding adaptation of the novel, one that remains faithful to the principal themes and moral issues without trying to address all the book's complexities -- something that would be impossible on the screen in any case.

Easily one of the best films that premiered at the festival, "The Wings of the Dove" appeared out of competition, in the British Renaissance section, since one member of the cast, Charlotte Rampling, had already been appointed a member of the jury.

Kate (Helena Bonham Carter) has become the ward of her wealthy Aunt Maude (Rampling) after the death of her mother and the descent of her degenerate father (Michael Gambon) into the lower depths of London's seedy pubs and opium dens. Kate has a secret and unsuitably impecunious admirer, Merton Densher (Linus Roache), whom she cannot marry without being cut off by Aunt Maude (who is also subsidizing her father's addictions). Into this impasse comes Milly (Alison Elliot), a young and immensely rich American heiress, who is passing through London on her way to Venice.

Milly, it emerges, has not long to live, but falls in love with Merton (unaware that Kate and he are more than friends). Kate and Merton follow her to Venice, seeing in the possibility of a legacy from her the solution to all their problems.

The darkening tale of the fortune hunters and their prey is set in the novel in a more crowded social scene, but has been stripped down in the film to concentrate on the central triangle. Bonham Carter's rendering of a complicated and ambiguous character is excellent. And Elliot's portrayal of Milly, a good and emotionally generous person who is doomed but painfully in love with life, is highly accomplished.

The visual imagery is skillfully handled, while the suspense is maintained to the last frames -- and Eduardo Serra's cinematography, especially in Venice, is superb.

The expatriate Hong Kong journalist John (Jeremy Irons), like Milly, is dying of a rare blood disease in Wayne Wang's in-competition "Chinese Box." John's misery is compounded by the prospect of expiring without making love with "the only woman I can't have," Vivian (Gong Li), a former prostitute who has been set up in semi-respectability with her own bar by a rich local businessman, Chang (Michael Hui).

Slick, brash, frenetic, but at the same time majestic in panorama, the glittering water-girded anthill of Hong Kong is stunningly captured. Indeed, in the end, Hong Kong itself becomes the main character of the film, overshadowing the private drama and creating the sensation that only the city is palpably real, while John and Vivian's story remains what it is -- pure fiction.

A more integrated blend of fact and fiction is "Ovosodo" by the promising young director Paolo Virzi. Set mainly in Ovosodo (which means literally "boiled egg"), a working-class district in the port city of Livorno, the title is also the nickname of the young hero (engagingly played by Edoardo Gabriellini), whose growing pains from childhood to early manhood we follow in this acute, enjoyable, often funny, picture of the realities of Italian life.

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TAKESHI KITANO'S "Hana-Bi" (Fireworks) marks the Japanese writer-director's return to the screen as the main protagonist, playing Nishi, a legendary cop who leaves the force to take care of his dying wife after his long-term partner ends up in a wheelchair, having been shot in a stake-out, and after another policeman is killed while Nishi and his colleagues are trying to arrest the gunman. Nishi robs a bank to pay for a last holiday for his wife and help out his crippled friend and the dead policeman's widow, and is soon being pursued by both the law and a group of gangsters. "Hana-Bi" is often puzzling -- there is virtually no dialogue -- at times violent, at others touching, but achieves some haunting cumulative effects.

Harold Pinter makes a rare appearance in "Mojo" (directed by Jez Butterworth), set in a Soho rock'n'roll club in London in 1958. Pinter is mesmerizingly creepy as the aging, liver-complexioned, sexually predatory, old-style Cockney gangster Sam Ross in a film that is otherwise full of sound and fury but adds up to very little.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016