Golden Bowl, The: Merchant Ivory Version of Henry James Novel

Vastly uneven, with some wonderful period touches but also more than a few tedious moments, The Golden Bowl is Ismail Merchant-James Ivory third screen adaptation of a Henry James novel, following The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984).

Like those efforts, new film is tasteful, diffident and decorous, and like them, it suffers from lack of subtlety and miscasting, here in the case of the two leads, Uma Thurman and Jeremy Northam, as lovers whose adulterous affair entangles their lives in a complex, painful and fateful web of relationships. Miramax (which has U.S. rights) faces an uphill battle in marketing a deliberately-paced literary film that takes too long to build up narrative momentum and explore its central dramatic conflicts.

Over the past five years, cherished novelist Henry James has enjoyed resurgence in American cinema with new textual readings, evident in the daring but not entirely successful efforts of Agnieszka Holland (Washington Square) and Jane Campion (The Portrait of a Lady). Iain Softley’s Wings of the Dove (released by Miramax in 1997) deviated substantially from James, but in tune with the novel’s spirit, it was sophisticated, ambiguous, cinematic, and most important of all, anchored by a terrific performance from Helena Bonham Carter, a Merchant-Ivory pro who could have been much more effective than Thurman as Golden Bowl’s protagonist.

The first reel is particularly weak and diffuse: It takes the filmmakers a good half an hour to establish the historical milieux and dramatis persona, jumping around from 1903 to 1909, and moving back and forth between England and Italy.

Story proper centers on Amerigo (Northam), the descendant of an illustrious but bankrupt line of Roman princes, about to marry Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), the loving daughter of America’s first Billionaire, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), a retired tycoon who lives in Europe for his invaluable collection of art, which he hopes to transfer to a museum in a major American city.

Prior to his marriage, Amerigo had a passionate affair with Charlotte (Thurman), an American schoolfriend of Maggie who’s grown up in Europe. The two had to part because they were too poor to marry each other. A beautiful woman, Charlotte is still in love with him and hopes to rekindle their flame. Her reappearance, just days before Amerigo’s wedding, provides the stimulus that will ultimately damage two marriages and spiral the lives all four partners totally out of control.

In a crucial scene set in a store, Charlotte and Amerigo discuss what present she should buy for Maggie–and then what presents they should exchange themselves. They set their eyes on an ancient golden bowl which storeowner Jarvis (Peter Eyre) insists is flawless. When Charlotte proves indecisive about it, Jarvis promises to keep the bowl for them, totally unaware of the symbolic value and pragmatic importance that the piece would later assume.

Since Adam is still a young widower, daughter Maggie is concerned with his loneliness. When Charlotte announces her plan to marry Adam, it sounds like a good idea for all concerned, the young and the older couple. In his absorbing tale, James, a shrewd observer of human behavior’s intricate complexities, dissects two marriages that are interlinked in both emotional and sexual ways.

After grounding in detail the background and psychological motivations are grounded, scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala devotes the second–and more involving–half of the narrative to how the four players handle the secrets and lies that dominate their lives. Further complicating issues is aunt Fanny (Anjelica Huston), who knows about the illicit romance but is trying to protect the innocent Maggie from being hurt.

In Golden Bowl (his last completed novel), James showed in a masterful, ironic manner the various facades and masquerades of the central characters, their power and control games in the name of love as well as for survival and ego-protection. Unfortunately, James’s deft portrait of human frailty and his experimentation in narrative mode only intermittently find vivid expression in Ivory’s movie. Everything in the film, particularly in the last reel, is spelled out in an explicit, literal-minded manner.

With the help of lenser Tony Pierce Roberts, Ivory details the exterior contexts in which the psychodrama unfolds, with lavish recreations of costume and dance balls, demonstrations of Verver’s architectural designs, inventive glimpses of the arrival of technology and industrial revolution in America. But impressive and sumptuous as these reconstructions are, they further diffuse the storytelling, making the noticeably draggy pacing even more damaging to the central action.

Film’s most disappointing aspect is leads acting. As she has shown before, Thurman is an appealing actress who can convey modernist cool better than most thesps, but she is not particularly adept in period pieces. Burdened with an unconvincing Italian accent, Northam lacks authority in conveying the conflicting emotions of a man who loves his wife but is still passionate about another woman. Beckinsale, as the initially naive wife who later on plays her own games, and Huston, as the nosy yet sensitive Fanny, acquit themselves better, but it’s Nolte who gives pic’s most decent and resonant performance.

Production values, particularly Andrew Sanders’ design and John Bright’s costumes, are exquisite, but they decorate a film that’s too slow and only sporadically involving. A trimming of 15 minutes will sharpen the narrative with no apparent damage to its coherence or emotional impact.