Film: The not so softly, Softley approach

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There's a Reader's Digest mentality behind the British insistence upon badgering literary classics onto the big screen. If you've see the two-hour movie, then you feel absolved of your guilt about never having bothered with the novel, and might also pick up sufficient details to pretend that you had. Personally, I think that cinema should thieve from literature, not try to ape it. So I'm pleased to report that Iain Softley's film of Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (15) will leave dinner-party bluffers stranded.

Hossein Amini's adaptation conjures the brooding, morbid atmosphere of the book, but makes no attempt to duplicate its events to the letter. It has a refreshingly piratical attitude to its source, pillaging it for its cinematically useful bits and discarding the rest. The plot is pared down to a feverish three-hander between the socially precarious Kate Croy (a superb Helena Bonham Carter, with all the bruised sensuality of a noir femme fatale), the directionless young journalist Merton Densher (Linus Roache, full of subtle moral weakness) and the terminally-ill heiress Milly Theale (a plausibly doomed Alison Elliot), to whom Croy plans to marry Densher in a bid for his financial security. For comic relief, Amini has wisely retained Croy's suitor Lord Mark - played by Alex Jennings, smirking and drawling like a well-to-do piglet who's been at the washing sherry.

Amini's adaptation fills in some of the novel's blank areas: Kate's father Lionel Croy (a lugubrious Michael Gambon) is outed as an opium addict (though I'd always assumed that James meant his "unspeakable" disgrace to be homosexuality). Other silences from the novel remain unbroken - the nature of Milly Theale's illness remains mysterious, we don't learn how Densher manages to negotiate so much time away from the office and we don't discover which newspaper he writes for (though I suspect it's not the Weatherfield Recorder).

The Wings of the Dove's self- consciously contemporary opening titles are the first sign that this isn't your customary bit of decorous Brit-lit. And before these credits have finished rolling, Bonham Carter and Roache are having the sort of snog in a lift that's more commonly associated with aftershave ads than period drama. Softley evokes a sense of modernity wherever he can: he has dragged the date forward from 1902 to 1910, in order to liberate his female actors from whalebone and allow them looser, more contemporary body language; Linus Roache wears some chunky jumpers that I'd have been very pleased to have got for Christmas; there are as many wristwatches, telephones and cars as the budget will provide, and there are scenes of gloomy, tearful, desperate sex that would make James Ivory jump on a chair and scream.

Once the action transfers from London to Venice, Softley is able to pursue a further detachment from historical specificity. In ageless canal locations, he can recreate the sickly, disorientating atmosphere of modern Venetian thrillers like The Comfort of Strangers or Don't Look Now - with no limitation imposed by the need to strew grit over the double yellow lines or wrap ivy around parking meters. (Perhaps taking this too far, some versions of the film's poster inadvertently included a vaporetto chugging towards the menage-a-trois's gondola.)

Director of photography Eduardo Serra has created a glacially cold world full of feathers, rich silks and fag-ash. Actors are framed against cobalt blue Islamic tiles, midnight blue canal water, peacock blue dress fabrics and the royal blue spines of parliamentary reports. But it's the performances by Roache and Bonham Carter that make this film such a darkly irresistible pleasure. Softley lets the camera look long and hard at these morally lost lovers - the nearest any director could get to the dense nuances of Jamesian prose - and lights them so that their pupils often seem completely black, as if concocting their selfish little plot has already placed them beyond redemption. Sumptuous, smart and full of grown-up glamour, Softley's film is as deep and dirty as the Gran Via.

Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (15) goosesteps into British cinemas this week in a blaze of controversy. Based on a piece of right-wing Utopianist sci-fi by Robert Heinlein, it envisions a future in which dentally perfect prom kings and queens gleefully massacre a race of terrifying insectoid aliens. US critics rightly identified the influence of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's pet documentarist, and Verhoeven was harangued for such images.

Starship Troopers is like a postcard from a society in which stupidity is the only social virtue. Its young cast are as clean and featureless as the computer- generated monsters that they're pig-sticking; the society in which they live is as repellent as the hives of brain-sucking beasts from the planet Klendathu. Verhoeven immerses you in an unthinkingly militarist culture, giving you no dissenters (like Orwell's Winston Smith) with whom to identify. The alien creatures are demonised and derided as "Bugs," and seeing their massed hordes is like experiencing the world through a filter of racist bombast; being forced to participate in the dehumanising delusion of Nazi anti-semitism or American disinformation about Gooks or Reds.

Verhoeven uses parodic military recruitment ads to frame his narrative. Rather like George Bush speeches from the Gulf War, these exhort you to support the war against the aliens without attempting to elucidate the reasons for the conflict. Bouts of carapace-cracking are punctuated with sequences in which smiling stormtroopers salute the joys of bug-blasting, or a small blond child in military uniform waves a rifle in the air and declares, "I'm doing my part!" Nazi iconography fills these sequences, but their foolish cheerfulness is closer to American wartime propaganda.

Though the film contains much that will tickle the trigger-fingers of right-wing sociopaths, this isn't empty-headed Reaganite pornography. With its picture of a human future that is uniformly vulgar, violent, and uncritical, it seems to me that Verhoeven is both glamorising and ridiculing the dumb-ass appeal of his previous films - crude nonsense like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. It's as if he wants to measure the credulity of his mass audience by trying to trick them into cheering on an army of fascists. If that's satire, then it's of a very cruel type.

If you want a Hollywood product that has more respect for its audience, try Douglas Sirk's deliciously sleazy 1956 melodrama, Written on the Wind (nc). It's as scathing about American complacency as Starship Troopers, but a bunch of surf Nazis butchering an infinite number of cockroaches is no match for one moody scene between Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 8.

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