Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) has been rescued from poverty by an aristocratic aunt (Charlotte Rampling), a woman who wears a turban so often I wondered if the character's name was really Aunt Jemimah.
Kate continues to carry on a lustful, latent affair with a poor but principled journalist, Merton Densher (Linus Roache).
Without ever once sermonizing or taking a sanctimonious tone, the film defines its characters not by their position in the caste system, but by their very natures; "The Wings of the Dove" is awash in the royal and roiled waters of humanity.
For a few nauseous moments, I worried that the film might turn into a paperback romance in which two characters are separated because of a difference in the material wealth of each.
Based on a novel by Henry James, a craftsman of complexity, "The Wings of the Dove" is blessedly not simple.
When the audience is introduced to Millie (Alison Elliott ), an affluent American dying of cancer, any literary viewer will hear machinations tick-tocking in his head. The relationship which forms between Kate, Millie, and Merton burns with desire sexual as well as monetary. Love is not one-dimensional in this movie.
When the three travel to Venice, the film swims into a lyrical elegance that it somehow lacks in London. Merton is not attracted to Millie, but she has fallen in love with him.
Kate says Millie is the most beautiful woman she has ever seen and intends for Merton to seduce her so that they will be left her riches when she dies. Though never sure where to lie sympathies, the viewer is not once averse to any of the central characters.
Even when Kate is at her most manipulative, she seems fragile and lovestruck - one truly believes that she does everything for love.
Bonham Carter has never put so much nuance into a role, and she gives Kate a tragic aimlessness.
We know she does not want to be concerned by money.
In the end, she is not.
Bonham's Carter's performance is at its best when she is most still. When Merton wants her to "show me how to love you" she locks her face, her eyes dart only slightly. She gives Kate much more caution and uncertainty than the novel allowed for.
Equally subtle is Alison Elliott, whose portrayal of Millie is one of such quiet beauty that some critics have said she underplays the role.
In truth, she captures the themes of the film in her slight mannerisms - the way fate can turn one way and suddenly double back, on the wings of a dove, and still remain graceful yet unimaginably sad.
"The Wings of the Dove" is about how simple and ultimately impossible it is to transcend society's strictures.
Linus Roache gives perhaps the best performance in the movie.
He invests the part with such striking wit and handsomeness in the early scenes of the movie that his character's confusion and bitterness after Millie's death seems all the more devastating.
One of the most brilliant sequences in cinema this year is an overhead shot of Merton lying on a bench, waiting for Kate who will not come.
The way the camera captures it gives the illusion that he is in a coffin, a touching allusion to the agony of love.
Where other James adaptations have been weighed down in the details of costume or a perfectly appointed dinner party, "The Wings of the Dove" lifts off on the ecstasies of emotion.
There is a prejudice among many moviegoers against "period pieces." The perception - sometimes false, sometimes not - is that movies based on books by the likes of Jane Austen and Henry James take place only in stilted drawing rooms where characters speak archly about arcane problems.
"The Wings of the Dove" is the most approachable, affecting "costume drama" I have seen, thanks mostly to the fervid direction of Iain Softley.
Softley, who moves the movie forward with a swift, seamless agility, puts the audience in the arid closeness of the subway car, the labyrinthine madness of a masquerade ball which parades through the streets of Venice, the stagnant swelter of a Venetian fish market.
Even a church Millie and Merton go to has its frescoes barricaded by scaffolds; in "The Wings of the Dove" beauty is elusive of its characters, but not its audience.
The exaggerated close-ups and nudity in the final scene may be a bit overcharged, but as the closing credits roll, one remains transfixed by the feeling, focus and effectiveness of "The Wings of the Dove."
Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.