The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, adapted by Linda Marshall Griffiths

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BBC Radio 4, 1-15 August 2010
This fascinating adaptation can only be reviewed in terms of three movements, each corresponding to a particular episode. The first was all about money; how to get it and how to retain it. Aunt Maud (Clare Higgins) was a dominant person, treating Kate Croy (Lyndsey Marshal) as a commodity in forging a profitable alliance with Lord Mark (Toby Jones). In this money-obsessed world, each conversational exchange took on the appearance of a duel, where the participants tried to discover one another's financial prospects (and thereby determine their suitability for marriage).
Such conflicts were only played out on the surface; in private the three principal protagonists Kate, Milly (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Densher (Blake Ritson) communicated their thoughts directly to listeners through asides. Director Nadia Molinari prefaced these statements with a discordant sound-effect strongly resembling the sound of iron being beaten into shape, suggesting, perhaps, that such reflections were somehow out of tune with the social mores of early twentieth century London society. However all three characters flouted convention and continued their reflections - so frequently, in fact, that we got the sense that they were competing with one another for our attention. If money was the principal driving force in this world, the desire for recognition was equally important; this is what prompted the protagonists to talk to us.
The action unfolded in a series of one-to-one exchanges: Kate talking to her father Lionel (Jonathan Keeble), then to Aunt Maud, and then to Densher. This suggested that the characters led extraordinarily intense lives: although none of them worked full-time (even Densher obtained only sporadic employment as a journalist), their day-to-day existences forced them to make continual choices as to how to behave, or which social role to play. Thus Kate was forced to play the role of desirable marriage prospect for Lord Mark, even though she was really in love with Densher.
In the second episode the notion of social role-playing with complicated somewhat by the introduction of cultural differences. Aunt Maud resented Milly's easy familiarity, that contrasted starkly with Lord Mark's rather cold, stand-offish attitude, while at the same time understanding the importance of sustaining cordial relationships with the Theale family, in the hope of financial gain. Likewise Kate revealed an obvious dislike for Milly, especially when she discovered that the American girl had enjoyed a close friendship with Densher in New York. Yet such feelings were only communicated to us through asides; in polite society Kate pretended that she was Milly's best friend.
However director Molinari suggested that Milly was not really interested in playing these social games. Rather she was haunted by the memory of her affair with Densher, which reminded her of the days when she was a healthy young woman. This was suggested through a deliberate contrast between past and present; in the past, Milly was heard laughing and joking with Densher in her New York apartment; in the present, we listened to her reflecting on her experiences of walking through London's streets and listening to the sounds around her - the sellers' cries, the melodious twang of the barrel-organ, the children enjoying their games. While this experience was undoubtedly melancholy (as Milly understood the fact that she had not long to live), it demonstrated her capacity to accept without question what was in store for her. Her strength of character contrasted starkly with both Kate and Densher, both of whom continued to believe in the importance of role-playing as a passport to social success.
The shortcomings of their world-view were revealed in the final episode. Once Milly had passed away, Densher's anguished soliloquies combined both grief and regret; having spent so much time trying to conform to what others expected of him, he had never managed to communicate his true feelings to Milly. Kate tried to make light of the situation, but even she understood how circumstances had led to a shift in meaning of the dove-metaphor. In the second episode it signified Milly's confinement; she could not escape her destiny. Now it signified escape: Milly had soared like a bird above the hundrum world of early twentieth-century Europe, and had acquired some form of immortality. As Kate spoke, we heard the sound of heavenly choirs in the background, rendering this point explicit.
Once again Molinari invoked the contrast between the Americans and the English: whereas Milly embodied the spirit of individualism, doing what it pleased, both Kate and Densher was shacked by the dead hand of social convention. Their reconciliation, following Milly's death, was both cold and unemotional: Kate announced in a monotonous tone that neither of them would be as they were. As the adaptation ended, we felt that both had got their just deserts; having dedicated themselves to a life of social role-playing, they had nothing left to show for it.
This production deliberately contrasted the 'Old' World of Europe with the 'New' World of the United States, as well as satirizing bourgeois society. Although very different in terms of tone from the novel - where the narrative voice is continually present - it was nonetheless full of penetrating insights.