For Love and Money

The Wings of the Dove
Directed by Iain Softley. Written by Hossein Amini, from the novel by Henry James. Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache, and Alison Elliott. Opens Friday, Nov. 14, at the Embarcadero Center.

Mad City
Directed by Costa-Gavras. Written by Tom Matthews. Starring Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta. Opens Friday, Nov. 7, at the Kabuki.

Put brutally, the marvelous The Wings of the Dove is the story of a romantic frame-up that backfires. Thankfully, nothing is put brutally in this smart, lyrical movie. Director Iain Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini cut to the thick of Henry James' masterpiece about amorous extortion and moral purification. Helena Bonham Carter displays unexpected fire as Kate Croy, a prototypical New Englishwoman who rebels against being forced into a financially profitable marriage. Her way out is to engineer a romance between her lover, Merton Densher (Linus Roache), a green Fleet Street journalist, and a dying American heiress, Milly Theale (Alison Elliott). Kate hopes that Milly will leave Merton her money and thus make her marriage to him possible. Instead, her bet pays off in friendship, jealousy, and pain.

Seductive from the start, the film grows more stimulating and involving as it goes along because these three are original people who mate and recombine unpredictably. This is the rare movie about deception and redemption without any finger-wagging moralism. It asks us to identify with characters who have conflicted motives and then face the consequences of their actions, harrowingly and intimately. Set in 1910 (the novel was published in 1902), The Wings of the Dove transcends period prettiness. It has the wrenching, cathartic beauty that comes from dramatic truth.

Kate and Merton aren't merely grasping for money. Like Milly, they're also grasping for life. The moviemakers clarify that Kate is hemmed in at every turn -- by her dissolute father (Michael Gambon), who believes that penury ruined his marriage, and by her rich Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), who will prepare a place for her in high society only if she forsakes her past. As F.O. Matthiessen wrote in Henry James: The Major Phase, Kate is "by no means the nakedly brutal villainess that he had projected in his notebook. She is a much more living mixture of good and evil, a far more effective register of James' mature vision of human complexity." Carter takes a fearless leap into the void with her portrayal of this headstrong woman, who is both desperate and galvanizing. In films like Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, she tended to go blank. Here there's always something at the bottom of her eyes -- pride, anger, sexual hunger, and, at the end, the sort of hurt that has no solace. Carter gives an ardent performance in a distinctly Jamesian vein: With near-telepathic magic and exactness, she conveys the fluctuations of an acute and mortified consciousness.

Linus Roache, as Merton, does something equally difficult: He conveys the dawning of a young man's conscience. Merton, still caught in a post-university daze, is timid and half-formed compared to his lover. But he responds to Kate's sentences in the charged manner peculiar to James' fiction. When these two are together, a word from the speaker incandescently connects to the listener, like the current jumping from one electrode to the other in an arc lamp. With disarming simplicity, Roache brilliantly renders James' description of the character: "The difficulty with Densher," James writes, "was that he looked vague without looking weak -- idle without looking empty." Merton suggests to James "that wondrous state of youth in which the elements, the metals more or less precious, are so in fusion and fermentation that the question of the final stamp, the pressure that fixes the value, must wait for comparative coolness."

The moviemakers have taken their cue from that passage -- and not just when it comes to Merton. Their 1910 London has an oscillating atmosphere. When Kate and Merton meet in a subway and an elevator, they emit an erotic electricity far different from their giggly euphoria when they prance outdoors in the rain. Throughout, the textured, light-streaked cityscapes, and the dappling of sexually themed artworks, suggest an outbreak of new energies. And the adaptation emphasizes the waning of the old ones: Lord Mark (Alex Jennings), who needs to marry money to pay the upkeep on his castle, becomes a pathetic (if dangerous) figure.

When Kate, Merton, and Milly go on holiday to Venice, chaperoned only by Milly's friend Susan (Elizabeth McGovern), the phantasmagoric location becomes the ideal base for their stratagems and fantasies. Kate wants to hang on to Merton's love while manipulating him into romance with Milly, who keeps hungering for vitality as her body wanes. As Milly, Elliott strikes the perfect note of yearning and acceptance; you never doubt her generosity toward her friends (and later her forgiveness of them). The film develops an excruciating tension richly and pleasurably: Is Kate's plan for Milly simply a way of acquiring Yankee millions for Merton? Or is it in part an act of kindness toward Milly?

The Wings of the Dove doesn't take shifting allegiances lightly; it shows the emotional toll of modernism. Kate strives to keep the faith that Merton's devotion to Milly won't alter his love for herself. By the end, she has no illusions left. The whole movie is startling and up-to-date. The subtly stylized settings, and Carter's tragic intensity, carry Kate's crucible ever closer to us. We leave singed.

The Wings of the Dove has already roused controversy among purists because the filmmakers stress Kate's emotional neediness over her money lust. Similarly, Mad City, a descendant of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, may irritate orthodox movie buffs. In the coruscating Wilder classic, Kirk Douglas' supremely cynical newspaper reporter turns the rescue of a cave-in victim into "the big carnival" (the film's alternate title). The protagonist of Mad City, a TV reporter (Dustin Hoffman) who manipulates breaking news, is a victim of the big carnival himself. He emerges a tarnished hero, not an out-and-out villain.

Actually, that shift in moral perspective is the freshest thing in the movie -- it keeps the action absorbing even when the script keeps hammering us with lessons about the commercial exploitation of the news and the TV audience's craziness and gullibility. Hoffman's Max Brackett (a reference to Wilder's sometime writing partner, Charles Brackett), like Douglas' inky wretch, is busted to the boonies, a small California town named Madeline. While reporting on cutbacks at a natural history museum, Brackett lucks out when a laid-off security guard (John Travolta) with a rifle and a sack full of dynamite shows up and holds the curator and a school group hostage. Like Douglas, he sees his coverage of a catastrophe as his ticket back to New York City.

But Brackett goes through quicksilver changes when he realizes that the security guard, Sam Baily, is a childlike innocent: a family man distraught over the loss of his paycheck, a descendant of George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life. This Baily just wants his hoity-toity ex-boss (Blythe Danner) to listen to him (and rehire him). Reporting events as they break, without pause for analysis, Brackett turns a freak incident into a no-exit media event. At the same time, Brackett's microphone becomes Baily's best option for survival -- the magic wand to transform his inchoate yearnings into honest-American soundbites.

The one thread in the film that never stops twisting is Brackett's ad hoc morality. He's attempting the impossible -- to cover his ass from three different directions. His goals are to keep Baily confident in his loyalty and power, to assure his mossback local chief (Robert Prosky) that he's practicing sound journalism, and to protect the story from a rapacious network anchor (Alan Alda). Even when Brackett acts semirighteous, trying to package Baily's goodness for the TV public, he cuts ethical corners, altering quotes to fit his bias.

Hoffman, as Brackett, is a solid pro playing a solid pro. He doesn't hit the ecstatic wild arpeggios that he does in Barry Levinson's forthcoming Wag the Dog, but he lands in a good groove. No matter how close Brackett grows to Baily (the film is being promoted in part as a platonic male love story), Hoffman stays taut and keen. He leaves the slops to Travolta, who at times depicts Baily as a cross between Forrest Gump and a shmoo -- the endomorphic critter from Li'l Abner that would turn itself into breakfast if its human friends so desired. The failure is not entirely Travolta's. Tom Matthews' script views Baily as a sort of Cro-Magnon Non-Media man: a guy who on the one hand can teach children about the white men's destruction of the Indian and on the other not know the definition of a "softball question." Yet when Baily's jejune sensitivity becomes outright farcical or dangerous, Travolta, too, has his moments. He and the haughty, maternalistic Danner, who treats the museum as a family heirloom, suggest the unarticulated ugliness of American class friction.

Mad City has an Al Capp quality of its own. It takes place in a world where a catch phrase like Baily's "Is anybody listening?" can forthwith become a folkie song lyric, and a media figure's ratings can plummet and rebound in 24 hours, like the stock market. Baily's accidental wounding of a black security guard immediately takes on a racist cast, underlined by the angry white men who support Baily and the black protesters who appear in "What about Cliff?" T-shirts. Director Costa-Gavras generally keeps a lid on the histrionics. In his calm hands, the excited, relatively unafraid child hostages provide an undercurrent of sanity; when the story veers away from them, the director shrewdly lets the action set the emotional frequency.

The result is in turn ultrareal and stylized. The movie is full of types, from Prosky's gasbag would-be wise man to Brackett's all-about-Eve assistant (Mia Kirshner) and the empty-headed yuppie suits who run the network. What's novel and trenchant is how far the filmmakers allow us to put ourselves in Hoffman's cordovans as he maneuvers among self-aggrandizing big shots, pious authorities, and fickle young adults. Mad City can't escape the confines of a cautionary tale; it's got an awful hand-wringing ending. But when Hoffman's Max Brackett breaks into a sweat, it backs into a major theme: not media corruption, but corporate America's not-so-wonderful life.

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