With her short hair and casual sweater and skirt, she could be ready for a
night out at Axis or the Middle East. She's still actress-beautiful, but you
wouldn't guess that Helena Bonham Carter has made a career out of roles in
cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare (Ophelia in the Zeffirelli Hamlet,
Olivia in last year's Twelfth Night) and E.M. Forster (Lucy in A Room
with a View, Caroline in Where Angels Fear To Tread, Helen in
Howards End). She does contemporary, too -- Woody Allen's faithful wife
in Mighty Aphrodite, for example. Yet as '90s -- 1990s -- as she looks,
there's a poise and grace about her, as she pours out another cup of tea in her
sitting room at the Lenox Hotel, that explains why directors keep coming back
to her for roles like Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove.
She's so immersed in James's sensibility, it's hard to believe she didn't read
the entire book. "I made it through about two-thirds of it. I gleaned the
atmosphere and the characters and the nature of their relationships and the way
they talk to each other, which is so torturous -- it's the way they don't say
what can't be said." Which, of course, is what James is about -- the plot is
secondary. For the record, Linus Roache (who plays Merton Densher) didn't even
attempt the book, and Christopher Eccleston, who had the title role in last
year's Jude, made a point of not reading the Hardy novel because, like
Roache, he wanted to concentrate on Hossein Amini's screenplay. And Amini? "He
did read it," Bonham Carter confirms. "Well, he told me he read it. But he put
it aside pretty quickly. I think he felt that the only way to adapt it was in
an incredibly free -- but not disrespectful -- way. More 'inspired by' than
faithful. But the bones of the story are there, and the characters, and I hope
the ambiguity and the complexity."
Indeed, Kate Croy is even more ambiguous and complex than Bonham Carter's
largely sympathetic Forster heroines. "I didn't want audiences to like her, I
wanted them to have a complex reaction, feel contradictory toward her. In a way
I wanted her to be as honest [to the book] as possible, there's a brazenness
about her, when she lies to Milly, it's outrageous." She seems to have
succeeded. "One person said to me, "Well, I thought I liked your character, but
by the end I didn't. But I still cared."
Then there's the celebrated nude scene -- nudity in a Henry James film? But
Bonham Carter has a plausible explanation. "I think what the filmmakers wanted
was just the one scene where everything is laid down and where Kate and Merton
have to face each other with literally a naked honesty. And that's where she's
the most courageous, because she asks the question even though she knows the
answer, but there's no other way forward. Other people might just carry on, and
it would be a dreadfully unhappy marriage. But Kate -- by the end she does live
by truth. And there is a sort of redemption in that."
Even more controversial might be the final scene. In the book, Kate walks out
on Merton, saying, "We shall never be again as we were." In the film Merton
returns to Venice, to live on Milly's money and Milly's memory. "That was a
disputed scene. This is a film that had a different ending every week. There
was one in which Merton plays football with young people while Milly watches.
We wanted to have some hope. It was always just a coda."