"IT IS NOT respectable to like Costume Pictures," wrote Joseph W. Reed in his wonderful book about movie genres, "American Scenarios," and, alas, he was right. While two-fisted film critics have managed to celebrate the crudest shoot-em-ups as vigorous American movie-making, the costume picture -- with a pedigree as venerable as the western -- remains despised. That's at least partly because enjoying the spectacle of balletic bloodletting is a boy thing, while reveling in piles of lace, brocade and ormolu is quintessentially, and perhaps irredeemably, a girl thing.
Being a girl, though, and past the point of caring what the boys think anymore, let me come right out and say that I love this stuff -- the stately homes, the powdered wigs, the carriages, the incredibly green lawns -- all of it. Of course, costume pictures do, often, suffer from some chronic flaws of the genre, just as westerns and action movies are prone to a certain self-pitying individualism. As Reed points out, costume pictures tend to feel vaguely "educational," since they're usually based on literary classics or historical events. I know people who hate them because of the audiences they attract -- PBS-subscribing types with a morbidly bourgeois notion of good taste. Others, I suspect, avoid them because they're so unlikely to offer much in the way of titillation.
The solution to the costume picture's dilemma is simple: wicked people and sexual intrigue. It worked for Stephen Frears' "Dangerous Liaisons" and it works for Iain Softley's new adaptation of Henry James' novel "The Wings of the Dove." And I don't mean to suggest that all that Softley has done is add a bit of edge to the Merchant-Ivory formula. His "The Wings of the Dove" is a liquid delight, appropriate to its Venetian setting, of shifting and treacherous affections and loyalties. Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) can't marry Merton Densher (Linus Roache), the man she loves, without defying her rich aunt (Charlotte Rampling) and falling into destitution. When she discovers that her new best friend, the American heiress Millie Theale (Alison Elliott), is both smitten by Merton and secretly dying, she contrives to push the two together in the hope that Merton may shortly inherit Millie's fortune. James' novel hardly coddles the dewy nostalgic fantasies of the Victoria magazine crowd; its complex, adult story concerns itself with the ugly calculation needed to secure the wealth to finance all that upper-class opulence.
But what opulence! "Wings of a Dove" stints on nothing when it comes to the trappings that delight costume picture devotees everywhere. Even better, the movie is set during a relatively unplumbed era, the time when Europe, just before the first World War, began to blossom into modernism. (In this, Softley departs from the novel, which is set in 1902 rather than 1910.) The characters inhabit a world of fundamental instability covered in ornate, bejeweled surfaces, as drunk on sensuality as the Gustav Klimt paintings they contemplate in a gallery scene. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra saturates the screen with color -- cobalt, emerald, saffron and gilt -- until even the medical instruments used by Millie's doctor look precious. There are several marvelous hats. There are even more splendid gowns, including some made of pleated Fortuny silk that may induce light swooning. There are gorgeously tiled rooms and crumbling Venetian palazzi and midnight gondola excursions.
Meanwhile, Carter, usually relegated to playing doll-like virgins, gets to portray a brooding vixen here, and she's impressive. She and Roache make the mutual sexual enthrallment of Kate and Merton convincing and erotic in a way that's also deeply sad. As Millie, Elliott has a fragile vibrancy that grows paradoxically stronger, as her character fades physically while gaining emotional command over her would-be manipulators. In the end she becomes plausibly, yet never tiresomely, angelic (a graceful ivory Fortuny dress and Elliot's abundant red-blonde hair don't hurt much in this department). As Kate's aunt, Maude, the beturbaned Charlotte Rampling insinuates herself through a handful of scenes in a way that distills the elegant menace of the whole milieu. Just watching her get up out of chair provides a minor thrill.
Softley (who also directed the rousing 1994 Beatles biopic "Backbeat") has the intelligence to realize that the charms of the costume picture are eminently flexible. As a genre, it welcomes dense psychological realism and tales of noirish double-crossing as all-too-rare guests in its lavishly appointed mansions. He obviously felt no need to restrain costume designer Sandy Powell or production designer John Beard in order to prove the "seriousness" of his directorial intentions. The rigid distinction usually made between a terrific outfit movie and cinematic art is just another barrier washed away in the overflowing riches of "The Wings of the Dove."