Movie Review by Neil Ryan
Starring: Uma Thurman, Jeremy Northam, Kate Beckinsale, Nick Nolte
Director: James Ivory
THE GOLDEN BOWL by Henry James was written in 1904 and is reputed to be the novel of which he was most proud: he called it “the best book I have ever done”. Typically Jamesian, it is a subtle drama that is told at a deliberate pace and is set amongst the well-mannered but emotionally inhibited upper stratum of early twentieth century society. Most of the action involves the flexing of heart and mind and takes place in the drawing rooms and libraries of the noble and plutocratic where communications are limited to effusive platitudes interspersed with knowing looks and sotto voce upbraids.
Nick Nolte stars as Adam Verver, a widowed American industrial millionaire who resides in London with his devoted daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale) and enjoys an expensive passion for collecting European art. At the beginning of the film Maggie is set to marry Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), an Italian aristocrat with a rich and colourful heritage but no actual wealth. However, unbeknownst to Maggie, the Prince once had an affair with her best friend Charlotte (Uma Thurman). From the outset it is evident that there is a lingering latent passion underpinning the relationship between Charlotte and the Prince. It was only their mutual lack of funds that prevented them from getting engaged to each other before the Prince had ever met Maggie, and even after the wedding he is unsettled by Charlotte’s increasingly common visits. Following one such appearance the Prince’s unease is compounded by the surprise announcement that Adam and Charlotte are to be wed.
Subsequently, a curious quartet is formed: the home-loving father and daughter continue to spend much time together whilst the Prince and his step-mother-in-law become regular attendees at the main occasions in the social calendar. As the former paramours become bolder in their public assignations they arouse the interest and suspicions of other members of their coterie. Eventually a gradual and foreboding cognisance envelopes both father and daughter – although they choose not to voice their fears, opting instead to try and rectify matters by their own means. Inevitably, this means that not everyone from the entangled quartet is destined to survive the affair unscathed.
Suppressed passions set against a backdrop of sumptuous period locations are, of course, the speciality of the Merchant-Ivory production team and thus it is a shame to report that THE GOLDEN BOWL does not attain the very high standards that they have set in the past with the near-perfection of HOWARD’S END and THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. Buoyed by a decade of awards and acclaim Merchant-Ivory tackle THE GOLDEN BOWL with a boldness and zeal that seems slightly overbearing given the genteel nature of the film’s context. Bolstered by a transatlantic cast of A-list stars and boasting the usual immaculate sense of period in both costume and sets, the fêted collaborative team of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala seem almost arrogant in their handling of James’s source material. The grandest of locations are somewhat showily employed for the briefest of scenes; and the viewer frequently becomes attuned to a specific setting and emotional climate only for a sudden leap forward in time to move events on several months or even years. Unfortunately, it is this over-confident approach that probably prevents a very good film from becoming a great one.
THE GOLDEN BOWL makes for very attractive viewing: immaculately attired characters preen and recline amidst elegant locations; everyone is polite and mannered, every object is plush or burnished. However, the splendour of this visual seduction merely serves to emphasise the film’s shortcomings in other areas: the poverty of any real incident is not usually a concern in period dramas – but in THE GOLDEN BOWL one is left wanting more from characters that fail to engage the viewer’s empathy. The drama of their emotional conundrum does not grip with an intensity that is truly involving. Technically THE GOLDEN BOWL is faultless and the acting is very good, but ultimately it is a film to be admired rather than enjoyed.