The Golden Bowl
2001, R, 130 min. Directed by James Ivory. Starring Uma Thurman, Kate Beckinsale, Jeremy Northam, Nick Nolte, Anjelica Huston, James Fox.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., May 25, 2001
Perhaps The Golden Bowl, the new Merchant-Ivory joint, is itself a bit like the titular symbol of the film (and of the 1904 novel by Henry James). It's rich in detail and handsomely crafted, but with a flaw (or two) buried below its gilded surface. If it's not perfect, it still gives pleasure to the eye (naturally, the production design and technical values are sumptuous). The point of the tale is that a seemingly perfect façade can be purchased, either with the wealth of the nouveau riche or with the guile of the European gentry suddenly penniless as the winds of change sweep fortune, like drifts of snow, toward a rapidly industrializing and vulgar America. But perfection itself eludes James' four protagonists: cultivated expatriate Charlotte (Thurman); ingenuous school chum Maggie (Pearl Harbor's Beckinsale); Maggie's father, coal magnate Adam Verver (Nolte); and Prince Amerigo (Northam), who is Maggie's husband and Charlotte's lover. A compulsive appreciator of beauty, Adam adds a final piece to his collection of priceless objets d'art scavenged from across the globe: his new wife Charlotte. The relationships among the four are a puzzle box of sublimated passions and frustrated hopes. Naïve, introverted Maggie suspects little and complains even less as her gregarious, charming husband paints the town with his stepmother, though she longs for the domestic tranquility he is unable to provide. Adam, who explicitly compares his collecting to piracy, wishes for more control over Charlotte than he is able to exert -- at least at first. Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a longtime Merchant-Ivory associate, steers clear of the soapy tone of a period melodrama, a move that appears to have made the film less crowd-pleasing. (Despite a nomination for the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes, it was passed over for distribution by Miramax, the likeliest outlet for such fare.) Rather, Prawer Jhabvala keeps these conflicts pinned to the cerebral plot motifs of the film's source, particularly a preoccupation with the ability of art to reveal truth. The bowl is the evidence of Charlotte and Amerigo's relationship; a series of snapshots (lensed by a photographer who declares, “I am ready to expose!”) confirms it. This is not symbolism applied with the lightest of hands, and though it gives the film considerable texture, it also adds weight, and it may make the film taste dusty to many palates. On the minus side, Thurman has taken something of a critical beating for her turn as Charlotte, the character who should be the most emotionally available and fascinating. As Amerigo's second choice, Beckinsale is more dynamic and sympathetic by far, evolving from a standard-issue Edwardian ninny into a fiercely protective matriarch with great strength of will. She's the brightest star in the ensemble, though Huston threatens to walk off with the picture as a pickle-sucking matchmaker. She gives the movie the kind of spark it needs to be great.