[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
James Ivory, as a writer in the Cannes-Matin notes, has become a genre unto himself, and you couldn’t ask for a more thoroughgoing manifestation of that genre than The Golden Bowl. Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from one of Henry James’s most intricate novels, mounted in exquisite European locations and handsomely photographed as ever by Tony Pierce-Roberts, this latest Merchant Ivory production will neither disappoint devotées nor persuade unbelievers to take an adjacent pew. In both cases, that’s because The Golden Bowl is more a Cliff’s Notes version of Henry James than the real thing (to coin a phrase).
Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman), an impecunious American in Europe and a permanent house guest on the stately-homes circuit, has had a brief but passionate affair with Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), an also-impecunious nobleman whose ancestor managed to have the New World named after himself even though Columbus got there first. The Prince knows he must marry well, and urges Charlotte to do the same. She hates the idea, and is made no happier by the fact that he will marry her old friend Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale), daughter of Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), “America’s first billionaire.” Maggie doesn’t know that Charlotte and the Prince were even acquainted. The Prince doesn’t know that Maggie and her father are more of a couple than most spouses, with everyone else relegated to the periphery of their lives. Years pass, frustrations grow. Charlotte even marries her contemporary’s father, who occupies himself with buying up the artistic treasures of Europe for the eventual edification of his working-class countrymen back in “American City.” But Charlotte too is marginalized, and on the margin she and the Prince are thrown together again and again. Well!
All this is earnestly played — or declaimed — by the principals, with Thurman dropping her customary masklike comportment for a borderline-manic style (Charlotte’s asymmetrical hairdos indexing notable moments of imbalance) and Nolte, bravely aged, limning a dry-as-dust robber baron who aspires to having a soul. Still, one wishes for more of Anjelica Huston as Fanny Assingham — sometime co-conspirator, sometime moral commentator — and the ever-delicious James Fox as her gruffly libidinous husband.