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Directed by
James Ivory

Reviewed by
Bill Hubbard
3.5 stars

The Golden Bowl

Synopsis: Widowed American Tycoon Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) dotes on his only daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale). He is delighted when she wishes to marry a handsome but impecunious Italian Prince (Jeremy Northam). Neither know that Maggie's best friend Charlotte (Uma Thurman) had previously had an affair with the Prince and is still madly in love with him. Charlotte marries Maggie's father and in this hot-house environment passions are bound to erupt.

The Merchant-Ivory team have a solid CV of upmarket adaptations of turn-of-the-century English literary classics - expensive looking, artistically-filmed upper class costume dramas set in romantic locations. The Golden Bowl is a fitting addition to their oeuvre. As the Henry James novel from which it is adapted includes as one of its principal characters a billionaire American art collector living in London, much as the collector fills his walls with paintings, there is ample opportunity to fill each filmic frame with gorgeous images. A peripatetic, we are treated to the sumptuous interiors of his rented abodes (including the Fawns, a fabulous English stately home), and as he conveniently has an Italian son-in-law, there is sufficient justification to toss in a rusticated palazzo and pellucidly blue Roman skies. Add meticulous décor, wonderful costume design and a comparably rich original score and this is a very seductive visual package of especial charm for those who are enamoured of the elegance of bygone days.

Performances I found less convincing. Uma Thurman in the lead role of Charlotte, in particular, seemed to have trouble imbuing her character with life. Comparing her to Gillian Armstrong's Lily Bart in another relatively recent Henry James adaption, The House of Mirth, (and a film I enjoyed much more than this) she struggled to suggest the mixture of vulnerability and pride of a woman forced to fend herself in a social milieu that expected nothing of her than to be a decorative appendage and with no option but to marry into money. For much of the film she seemed too uptight, if not outright freaked out by her role, especially when called upon to emote (there is one very clunky scene when she has a spat with Nolte's Verver over his plan to decamp to America that the editors clearly had trouble cutting around). Jeremy Northam as the Italian count with whom Charlotte is obsessively in love also comes off second best to Eric Stoltz in Mirth. At least the latter's character had a poisoned charm, Northam's Amerigo is a drip who would seem to have no evident quality that would inspire Charlotte's folly. Whilst this may explained by the "love is blind" truism and may have been part of the novel, it still should have been suggested within parameters of the film. Rightly or wrongly, I got the impression that the disconnectedness between the characters was less a function of their social environment than of these actors, and even the director, being overwhelmed by the grandiose settings (seasoned troupers Nolte, Fox and Huston fare much better than their younger colleagues).

There is a marvellously baroque opening flashback which frames the main story with a kind of tragic foreboding that is alluded to twice again but, strangely, never realised. I assume this is meant to signify the displacement of passion by possession in the capitalist order of things (there are two oddly beautiful moments when the film segues into contemporary historical footage of American streetlife and factory workers) but am not quite sure. As is so often the case with this film one must make one's own inferences rather than see them embodied. Whilst in the context of a thriller this would be tantalizing, for a drama it is somewhat unsatisfying, a bit like going to a football match and not getting a punch-up or two. Perhaps I am being overly literal and this is a better film than I think but it seemed to me that if more attention had been given to the interpersonal dynamics of the story and less to the picture perfect staging of it, the result would have been much more memorable.




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