The Golden Bowl
The Golden Bowl

USA/France/UK, 2000. Rated R. 134 minutes.

Cast: Jeremy Northam, Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale, Anjelica Houston, Edward Fox, Madeleine Potter
Writers: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Henry James
Music: Richard Robbins
Cinematographer: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Producers: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory


Grade: C Review by Carlo Cavagna

Now available on DVD and video, The Golden Bowl is a Merchant/Ivory film that flew under the radar into theaters in limited release early last summer. No one noticed. You would think that a film by the producer/director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (A Room with a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day) would make more of an impression, but it was not pushed hard by its U.S. distributor, Lions Gate Films. Upon viewing the film, it becomes apparent why. Though lavish and well-acted, The Golden Bowl fails to generate emotional momentum and sags under its own length.

Based on a Henry James novel, The Golden Bowl goes for the same tragedy-created-by-the-inaction-imposed-by-society's-strictures thing that Merchant/Ivory so fruitfully conveyed in The Remains of the Day and was also effectively portrayed in movies like The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. The only bit of that feeling The Golden Bowl effectively creates is the "inaction" part.

Set in England and Italy in the first decade of the 1900s, the story concerns two impecunious lovers, Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman) and Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam, donning beard and Italian accent). Instead of marrying Charlotte, Amerigo marries Charlotte's friend Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale) for her money. Amerigo does genuinely care about Maggie, though, and after consulting their mutual friend Fanny Assingham (Anjelica Huston), he chooses not to disclose to Maggie his prior relationship with Charlotte.

In order to secure her own fortune and be near Amerigo, Charlotte immediately latches onto Maggie's fabulously wealthy industrialist father, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), who spends his time buying great art in order to found a museum back home in Northam, Beckinsale, Nolte, and ThurmanNew York City (which, for some reason, is called "American City" in the story). Soon Charlotte and the much-older Adam are married as well.

They didn't have Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless in the Edwardian era, so nobody realizes this is a Very Bad Idea. Nobody, that is, except Amerigo, but he is prevented from saying anything because he has already lied about not previously knowing Charlotte. Charlotte and Amerigo resist temptation for a couple years, but adultery is inevitable. The adultery's inevitability makes the half-movie wait extremely frustrating. There's no tension. You know that it's inevitable, because without the adultery there is no story.

What happens after the seventh commandment is torn asunder is slightly more intriguing. One of the main themes of The Golden Bowl is the pretense that is required by society for the sake of others, when in fact everyone is probably well aware of what's going on--including the people supposedly being protected from the hurtful truth. The affair could not be more obvious--it was obvious long before it even happened--but Maggie is so clueless that you wonder if she's a simpleton. Then you realize that she's willfully blind, refusing to acknowledge the truth, because it is too painful and shameful to bear. Meanwhile, everyone assumes Adam knows nothing, even though it's entirely likely he knows everything.

While all of this is going on, Adam remarks to Amerigo that they are two ideal husbands. The statement is ironic not because it is false, but because it is true. They are ideal husbands, but not to the women they have married. Amerigo is ideal for Adam's wife, Charlotte, while Adam is ideal for Amerigo's wife, Maggie. Maggie, having a bit of an Elektra complex, idolizes her father. Adam and Maggie dote on each other so much that they practically throw Amerigo and Charlotte together, repeatedly sending them out to social engagements while they stay at home or go art hunting in each other's company. Even without knowing of Amerigo and Charlotte's prior relationship, their stupidity is amazing. Most of society assumes Amerigo and Charlotte are adulterers long before they actually fall in bed together. Thus, sympathizing with Maggie and Adam is difficult.

The film is named after its central metaphor, a gorgeous crystal bowl lacquered in gold that Charlotte and Amerigo chance upon in a shop. Amerigo talks Charlotte out of buying it because it has a nearly invisible crack. The bowl is a symbol for the beautiful life of leisure Adam and Maggie enjoy and Amerigo and Charlotte desire. As a symbol, it's handled with clumsy obviousness by Ivory. The bowl practically screams, "Look at me! I'm a metaphor!" It is, however, interesting that only Amerigo can see the flaw, just as he is the only one who senses that Charlotte's marriage to Adam is a Very Bad Idea. The film portrays Amerigo as basically a decent guy, just weak. His name, handed down from his ancestor Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who gave his name to America, is a wry joke. Adam intends eventually to return to America with his treasures, but Charlotte cannot bear the thought of leaving Amerigo and going off to what she views as a grimy land of heathens.

A handful of ironies and the mystery of who-knows-what are not enough to make The Golden Bowl fully engaging. It not only lacks suspense, The Golden Bowl fails to provide meaningful insight into the desires and behavior of any of the characters, except Amerigo. Emotional identification with the characters is difficult, even though the actors do a good enough job, especially Northam. (He's been toiling effectively in these period films for some years now, and deserves to be given a shot at something big.) The climaxes--there are two or three small ones--are dull and obvious, and then the film sputters to a halt.

Because this is Merchant/Ivory, the sets and costumes are extraordinary, but draping them over such an inert script creates a stultifying effect. Ivory seems more concerned with pretty photography than drama. The Golden Bowl is certainly not a bad film, but it is a modest entry in the Merchant/Ivory filmography.

Review © January 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Lions Gate Entertainment and Merchant Ivory Productions. All Rights Reserved

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