UK / 1997
Writer: Hossein Amini (from the novel by Henry James) / Director: Iain Softley
Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache, Charlotte Rampling, Alex Jennings, Michael Gambon
All her life, Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) has been aware of the need to conform. Her mother, born to rank and privilege, renounced her inheritance to marry an opium addict, condemning her daughter to penury.
Upon her mother’s death, Kate’s life is changed by her wealthy Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), who invites her to reclaim a privileged existence in return for severing all ties with friends and family. Disowning her father Lionel (Michael Gambon) is easy, but saying goodbye to her lover, lowly journalist Merton Densher (Linus Roache) proves impossible, and she fashions a temporary solution.
The arrival of American heiress Millie Theale (Alison Elliott) is auspicious. Befriending the lonely traveller, Kate learns that Millie is dying and plans to travel Europe in search of experiences, including romance. Kate offers Merton as a potential beau, and Millie accepts. Kate’s plan unfolds – Merton will marry the American and inherit her fortune. Upon her death he will reunite with Kate and begin living their dream. Almost immediately, the scheme begins to unravel…
Softley’s career in theatre prepares him well for the mannered environment of Victorian propriety and he wisely sidesteps the Merchant Ivory approach to deliver a sumptuous yet undeniably aggressive slice of social climbing which makes the most of an eclectic cast. Bonham Carter’ shoulders the film with a masterclass in manipulation, exemplified in the scenes with Elliott which suggest Millie’s craven acceptance of the situation. Roache plays an elegant patsy, hooked on Kate’s sweet words (“every time she smiles, remember that I love you more”) and hopeless to escape. Four Oscar nominations – including nods for Sandy Powell’s costumes and Hossein Amini’s screenplay – followed, but the gongs went to another tale of British brutality and indifference: Titanic.