Klimt’s Danaë in The Wings of the Dove

In the 1997 Iain Softley adaptation of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. Hossein Amini’s screenplay telescopes two scenes in the novel: One is the chance meeting of Milly Theale with Kate Croy and Merton Densher in the National Gallery, where she becomes aware of their prior relationship (about which Kate has to lie); the other is Milly’s recognition of her fate, and her need to do something with her life before she meets that fate, while looking at a Bronzino portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi that Lord Mark shows her at Matcham:

“The lady in question, at all events, with her slightly Michelangelesque squareness, her eyes of other days, her full lips, her long neck, her recorded jewels, her brocaded and wasted reds, was a very great personage–only unaccompanied by a joy. And she was dead, dead, dead. Milly recognised her exactly in words that had nothing to do with her. “I shall never be better than this.”

These two scenes are combined into one, which takes place at what visitors to London will recognize as the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, where Milly–after a visit to the “consultant radiologist” Sir Luke Strett, and observing children playing football in the Park–runs for cover to the Gallery to get in out of a sudden rainstorm.  When she arrives, Milly unexpectedly sees Kate and Merton “looking at pictures.” And the picture they look at longest is Klimt’s Danaë.



The hair of Klimt’s model is like that of Alison Elliott, playing Milly Theale in the film…



And the Klimt functions symbolically on two levels: the legend of Danaë, impregnated by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold, alludes to Milly’s vast wealth,

Furthermore, the compressed posture of the model in the Klimt painting, crammed as it were into the thick wooden box of the frame–see the framed version above– suggests Milly’s oncoming fate, to be enclosed in a coffin.

But Softley does something else with the Danaë image at the very end of the film, when we see Kate (played by Helena Bonham Carter) with her knees drawn up into the same physically folded position as the Danaë:

This image goes along with the sense we are given that the living Kate (whose need for Milly’s gold generated the plot) is now the encoffined Danaë, while the dead Milly is more alive than Kate is, as far as Merton is concerned….


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “Klimt’s Danaë in The Wings of the Dove

  1. I go along with your sense of the colors here.

    I should add as well that Softley was also into gratings: the grating of the elevator at the opening of the film behind which Kate and Merton kiss, the grating in Venice where they have sex, and the bars of the brass bed in his bedroom of that last screenshot I put up. The grating suggest the cage Kate is in, which she tries but fails to get out of.

  2. Art is all about perspective. While your insights were amazing (as always) they were a bit morbid. While it’s true how Iain Softley’s adaptation of Henry James’s “The Wings of the Dove” displays beautiful paintings as representations for Kate and Milly’s inner dilemma’s, however, I believe it goes further than that as a psychological representation from the way Klimit’s “Danea” is displayed and posed. For instance, while the woman in the painting bears some resemblance to Milly (Alison Elliott) what interests me more is that she’s in a fetal position and completely exposed, making her look completely completely fragile and delicate. Still, I wouldn’t say that she’s vulnerable as she looks beautiful and peaceful, surrounded by gold and beautifully decorated tapestry. To say that woman is in a coffin would diminish the beauty this painting inspires since she looks like she’s succumb to comfort, in a subtle state of ecstasy. I believe that Klimit’s “Danea” represents Milly perfectly as that’s what she’s trying to do during her trip to Europe: enjoy life and be so overcome with it that she’ll be in bliss. So while the allusions of Zeus’s gold make a connection to Milly’s wealth, I think the woman makes a much more profound and important connection to Milly herself. On the other hand, when Kate (played by Helena Bonham Carter) replicates that same position as the painting, it seems to have the opposite effect. Kate appears to be colder as she’s dyed in cool colors and light compared to the painting’s vibrant, vivid hues. Also, she seems more vulnerable and smaller compared to the woman in the painting, even though they’re both in full body shots (just one seems zoomed in and Kate is zoomed out). I truly enjoyed that echo to Klimit’s painting using Kate’s body, especially since it is that moment when she surrenders to her desires, and more importantly, defies her aunt and get the guy but it doesn’t seem like a joyous victory. Instead, it seems like a melancholic, soft goodbye to this life (to this part of her).

Comments are closed.