Merchant Ivory’s The Golden Bowl is based on Henry James’ 1904 novel about a quartet of foreigners in England, in the early 1900s.Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) is an American billionaire and art collector. He and his daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale) have cared for each other since the death of his wife. Maggie is about to marry an impoverished Italian prince, Amerigo (a heavily-accented Jeremy Northam). She is unaware that Amerigo had a romantic liaison with an American friend of hers - Charlotte (Uma Thurman) - prior to their marriage. Maggie encourages Charlotte to spend time with her lonely father, and they soon marry. Father and daughter return to each other’s side, unwittingly pushing their respective partners - Charlotte and Amerigo - back together.
Collaborating producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and adaptor Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (A Room With A View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day) have tackled James before - The Europeans in 1979 and The Bostonians in 1984 - and they have no trouble replicating the complex character dynamic of the novel. But the film shares the same difficulty as the book. The characters are established early (within the first 40 minutes) and fail to develop significantly over the course of the story. Nor does James add any significant secondary characters, besides Anjelica Huston’s gossipy Fanny Assingham and her droll husband (a delightful James Fox).
The Golden Bowl competed in Cannes in 2000. It’s taken 18 months to reach Australian shores partly because the original distributor, Miramax, dropped it after Ivory refused to trim the length from its present two hours and fifteen minutes. Miramax were wise to stick to their guns - The Golden Bowl could do with cutting.
A series of grand and stately English homes provide the settings. They are impeccably framed by cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, and supported by composer Richard Robbins. But they soon become monotonous when nothing much occurs between their walls. The filmmakers err by making Charlotte a villain, and Thurman doesn’t help by shamelessly overplaying her additional scenes of deviousness and hysteria.
The film’s other chief mistake is over-explaining the novel’s symbolism. James was content with the golden bowl of the title as his chief metaphor. An expensive gift of apparently flawless beauty, it contains a crack - initially imperceptible to all but Amerigo - that considerably reduces its value. Ivory includes three scenes where the significance of the bowl in relation to different characters is explained, and proceeds to draw further parallels about Charlotte’s infidelity using art, history and costume.It’s tiresome and redundant, and gives the strong impression of filmmakers who have lost control of their material, or become unsure of what attracted them to it in the first place.