Beautifully shot and acted adaptation of the Henry James novel, with Helena Bonham Carter in what could be her finest performance to date.
I love a nuanced and morally dubious heroine who almost crosses into an anti-heroine. Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) is a wilful and spiky society girl with a penniless drunkard father and a dead mother from a wealthy family who had married for love. Her imperious aunt (Charlotte Rampling) is determined that Kate won’t repeat the mistakes of her mother, and will make a good match. She takes her in on the condition that Kate severs the relationship with her father, and forgets all about marrying a poor journalist named Merton Densher (Linus Roache) that she’s desperately in love with.
Kate reluctantly goes along with her aunt’s wishes, until she befriends sweet Millie Theale (Alison Elliott), an American heiress who seems to have everything you’d want in life, except, it turns out, the chance for more life. Kate discovers that Millie is terminally ill from an unnamed disease, and only has a few months left to live. When Millie shows a clear romantic interest in Merton, you can see the wheels turning in Kate’s head. Can she have it all after all, the money and the man she loves? And what better way to carry out her plan than have Merton join her and Milly in beautiful Venice, the perfect flowerbed for romance?
I’ve never read the original Henry James novel so I’m not sure how different this story of love, loyalty, deceit and the cage of social constraints is in the film version. But it is without a doubt compelling on its own terms. While Kate’s plan to marry Merton to Millie is cold-blooded, and Merton himself is clearly onboard with it despite loud initial indignation and protestations, it’s more complicated than bare calculation. The two secret lovers genuinely like Millie, while it’s not clear how aware Millie is of everything that’s really going on, and whether she wants to go ahead regardless and experience love and romance before the end. Meanwhile, her own plan takes a terrible toll on Kate who’s consumed with jealousy, desperation and fear of losing her lover. Helena Bonham Carter truly shines playing a tricky character with a great deal of nuance and subtlety.
It goes without saying that the marvellously photographed sights of Venice made me sigh wistfully and wish that I had done that cheesy overpriced gondola ride after all. Despite the period setting, the movie has a modern sensibility, with a few memorable scenes of startling sensuality and choice of shots that you wouldn’t expect to see in your average period drama. It’s also always fun to spot the British actors who made an impression as regulars on The Crown and Downton Abbey.