Films: Looking at the horizon to see what lies beyond

The director of `The Wings of the Dove' artfully strips this period film - and its inhabitants - of convention. Nick Hasted meets Iain Softley, the man who likes to work on the edge.

When Iain Softley travels through time, he doesn't want you to notice. In his first film Backbeat (1994), he stripped back three decades of Beatles mythology to show their early years as a Hamburg pub band, pulled you in to their primal energy. In his second, Hackers (1995), he tried to predict the future, the music and manners of the digital underground 18 months ahead, when the film he was making would open. Soundtracked by the likes of The Prodigy and Leftfield, swimming in Internet images, it was too prescient, and crashed. Now he's in 1910, with The Wings of the Dove, and Helena Bonham Carter. Most directors would be crushed by period trappings. Softley has ripped through them. In its story about a doomed love triangle, of a helpless passion between young people abroad, he saw a story he wanted to tell young people today.

"These films usually have a rather fetishistic, collector's view of the past," Softley observes, doubtless with Merchant-Ivory in mind. "They're usually limited to an older, more genteel audience. Wings of the Dove was written by Henry James, a classical author. But the story itself is about young people, it's about people who have sexual desires, frustrations, and are hungry for each other, are hungry for opportunity and life. There's something very vibrant about the story. And so the fact that it could be executed in a way that turns off people the same age as the people in it seems perverse."

The casting of Bonham Carter is almost a metaphor for Softley's intentions, her corseted image unbuttoned, literally, in her first nude scene, and in a performance of confused, aggressive desire that already has her tipped for an Oscar. "One of the things that made this period alien to me was the sense that these people were caged, in corsets or etiquette, hats or formal greetings," Softley admits. "But you can sense in the novel that, underneath the veneer of the manners of the age, the same pulses were beating. We've chosen moments which are similar to our time - a girl coming to her boyfriend's apartment unchaperoned, and lying on the bed, or hidden in a lift in the Underground, where characters can grab each other physically."

Softley, a 39-year-old who looks younger, and whose pre-Backbeat background was in pop videos, is no Merchant-Ivory manque. The thing that links his films isn't the fact of their travels through time, but the points at which they alight. In Backbeat, it was Astrid Kirchherr, the free-thinking female photographer loved by "Fifth Beatle" Stuart Sutcliffe, who engaged him. In The Wings of the Dove, too, Bonham Carter's sexuality is at the cusp of what's possible, just ahead of society. In Hackers, most daringly, Softley tried to document times just before they happened. In each film he's been drawn to places on the edge, Hamburg or Venice or cyberspace, places of possibility. It's a tendency he's aware of, a clue to who he is.

"I think people are more alive and interesting if they are at the vanguard of their time, and fight against conventions," he says. "There are moments when there is a sense of things being possible. These ebb and flow, but it's the point when they come to a head that I always want to show. There are always people who are suppressing desire and aspiration. There are always pressures for people to act in a particular way. I'm most interested in characters who question and discover the world for themselves. I think it's an admirable, invigorating human quality."

In Hackers, Softley absorbed himself in characters with a sort of second sight, teenagers who could see under the skin of 1990s New York, to the playground of its phone wires. In Backbeat and The Wings of the Dove, it's the sensual place behind the public veneer that obsesses him. Does he think the official view of culture in any period is necessarily dull, a sort of shell - that there's always an exciting essence underneath? "I think there is in people's heads," he says. "There are times in everybody's life when they've been to a party or a club or a gig, and it's just been magic, for a moment, and that's the reason why people listen to music, why it's so pervasive." Is that moment in his films? "I hope so. Because, when it hits me, there's nothing like it."

The sense of swimming against the tide in Softley's characters is close to his heart. When he first tried to break into the film world in the 1980s, his face didn't fit. A product of the West London suburbs, his politely-spoken, middle-class persona wasn't made for times when film- makers were obliged to be, he remembers, "socially or regionally extreme". Wanting to be a film-maker at all was a blow against his background. He remembers a childhood when the excitement of Beatles records and the romance of hitch-hiking to festivals, and of London itself, took hold. But he still felt trapped on a path that would take him straight from school to Cambridge. So he broke away, for a year, and went to France. He didn't phone his parents once. He saw it as an experiment, an attempt to survive on his wits. He picked grapes, taught, painted, lived in the Midi, then Paris. "It was interesting to be somewhere where I didn't have any relationship to anybody," he remembers, "and where I didn't know what was going to happen next. It was an attempt to break free. It was an adventure."

The characters in all his films go to places where they're on their own, where they can define themselves. Does he think the step he took by going to France still fuels his work? "I know it does. When I wrote Backbeat, I was interested in the sense of arriving in Hamburg, and how no assumptions are made about you, there's no history. I actually went back to Paris to write it. There is something about those journeys, when you have to break out. Something happened to John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe when they left the back streets of Liverpool. They wouldn't have become The Beatles if they'd stayed. You define who you are more clearly by going away.

"I remember when I was a child, when I saw the view from the top of a hill, there was always something that fascinated me about it. I always wanted to go to what was over the horizon. It's almost nomadic, that search for something, until you realise that perhaps it's never there. I think that time in your life, when you're travelling and working out what you're going to do with yourself, is a time of great pain, but a time that you look back on as golden as well. There's something tragic about the way we change. The person I was 10 years ago is no longer there. That's in all the stories I'm telling, too."

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