Iain Softley first gained international plaudits with his directorial debut, the 1994 Backbeat. A fictional account of the early years of The Beatles, the film told the hitherto obscure story of original band member Stuart Sutcliffe, who died a tragically premature death. Featuring strong performances from its leads, particularly Stephen Dorff as Sutcliffe, Ian Hart as Lennon, and Sheryl Lee as Sutcliffe's girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, Backbeat became a sleeper hit both in England and the States, propelling its first time director into the realm of relative fame.
A graduate of Queen's College, Cambridge, where he directed a number of highly regarded theatrical productions, Softley earned an early reputation for his work as a specialist in various areas of the arts, particularly for his work on music documentaries and music videos, and collaborations with such musicians as Andy Summers and Robert Fripp. Backbeat combined Softley's musical inclinations with his ability to give an oft-heard story (in this case, the legendary beginnings of rock's most famous band) an original spin. Following the success of the film, Softley went in a completely different direction with Hackers, his 1995 thriller about a group of cyber pirates. Sleek, fast-paced, and starring the then-unknown Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie, the film received mixed reviews and did negligible business at the box office, although it did enjoy something of a cult video following.
Softley didn't resurface for almost two years, but when he did, it was with a triumphant adaptation of Henry James' The Wings of the Dove. Changing the novel's time frame slightly so that it better captured the concept of a world poised for 20th century change, Softley managed to make a film that was at once faithful to the original work (which many considered to be unadaptable for the screen) while at the same time thoroughly contemporary. Making incredibly effective use of its Venetian setting and abounding with lavish production values, the film also benefited greatly from the performances of its leads. Linus Roache captured the charm and weakness of the impoverished journalist Merton Densher, while Allison Elliott was heartbreaking but unsentimental as sickly American heiress Millie Theale; as the conniving anti-heroine Kate Croy, Helena Bonham Carter gave what many deemed the best performance of her career. Perfectly capturing the myriad complexities of her character, Carter earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal, one of four that the film received altogether. The film also garnered a number of international honors, leading many to observe that Softley was a director who would continue to fulfill his early potential.