Director Iain Softley, heretofore known for his film about the 'fifth Beatle,' Backbeat, and his thriller Hackers, has decided to emphasize the 20th-century aspect of Henry James (1843-1916) rather than his 19th-century side in The Wings of the Dove. The dialogue in Hossein Amini's script is spare while the action is relatively economical. Softley is clearly interested in showing us how much we have in common with the characters in James' romantic triangle, and to demonstrate that the people at the beginning of the 20th century are very similar to the people at its conclusion.

At the heart of The Wings of the Dove is Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter), from the poor branch of a rich family. After Kate's mother dies, she is taken in by her socially prominent Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), and this allows her to mix with the cream of English society, whom she finds a rather sour mixture. Kate is secretly in love with impoverished Merton Densher (Linus Roache), an idealistic journalist who finds himself helplessly torn between good deeds and hot rendezvous, and more inclined to give into the latter than the former.

When Maude orders Kate to break off her relations with Merton, Kate finds the choice intolerable, and comes up with a scheme to possess her lover and a fortune, too. Millie Theale (Alison Elliott), a wealthy young American whose health is in decline, also becomes intrigued by Merton. Kate encourages their relationship, hoping that Millie will leave Merton her fortune, and then conveniently pass on to the great beyond. Her plan is, on the face of it, successful, but it leads to consequences no one anticipates.

Unlike other recent films based on Henry James' novels-The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square-there is no attempt to duplicate the leisurely rhythm of a bygone era. Indeed, Softley has moved the film closer to our own time, roughly 1910 (The Wings of the Dove was published in 1902), an era that saw X-ray machines employed on cancer patients and a London subway system as sophisticated, and much cleaner, than the present Underground. The three lovers at the heart of this film could be three young people today, and the result is that this may be the most accessible James adaptation to date, as well as among the most beautiful. John Beard's production design, which moves from elegant neutral tones in England to warmer, splashier colors in Venice, is breathtaking. Shots of boats gliding through canals at night, and people rioting with pleasure during carnival, ought to double the number of tourists who flock to Venice. Tariq Anwar's editing contributes to the rapid pace, and is the primary reason The Wings of the Dove is never plodding or indulgent.

Of the three leads, Carter tends to dominate-as she should-with her patrician manner and her Bette Davis eyes. Roache is a bit on the anemic, scholarly side, but gives insights into a man in love and suspicious of love at one and the same time. However, the best performance comes from Elliott, best-known as the ex-con in The Spitfire Grill. Her portrait of a lady of serene compassion and angelic generosity also includes a healthy dose of common sense. If The Wings of the Dove is James with a modern twist-and it is doubtful the master would have applauded the nudity that concludes the film-audiences should relish an opportunity to see how much more human his world can be when the most basic appetites of his characters are explored.

--Bruce Feld