The Golden Bowl
We are all willing captives of our dreams, our desires, our loves; but we are also the prisoners of our time. "The Golden Bowl," from the Henry James novel, is the story of four captives of love, trapped and imprisoned by the mores that govern life in the first decade of the twentieth century.
The year is 1903, and Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman) is a poor American in Europe, in love with the impoverished Italian Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam). He will not marry her because she has no money to give him, to restore his palace and his fortune and his great name. But Charlotte's best friend since childhood Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale) is the doted-upon daughter of an American billionaire, the widower Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), a man who built his fortune on the profits from bituminous coal mines and who now traverses Europe buying art, historical treasures, and more, with the idea that he will bring it all back to his city and build a museum so that those who toil in his mines will have their first glimpse of real art.
Charlotte and the Prince agree that he should marry Maggie, so that Charlotte will always be near him, for assignations that they will keep secret. In fact the Prince and Charlotte even go together to find an appropriate wedding gift, and Charlotte spots a golden bowl - crystal overlaid with gold - that she thinks perfect. But it has a hairline crack and is not chosen.
Meanwhile an older friend, Fanny Assingham (Anjelica Huston) proposes a logical extension to the pairing: knowing of the affair and the lovers' fear of separation, she suggests that Charlotte should marry Adam. So there are now two and a half couples: Adam and Charlotte, Maggie and the Prince, and the Prince and Charlotte. As the film follows them over the next five years, the Prince is the first to recognize that his affair cannot continue. He began as a golddigger but has come to love Maggie and their young boy - the future prince.
And yet nothing, or almost nothing, is ever said out loud. There are looks, hints, occasional turnings-away, moments in which each of the four acknowledges that he or she knows what is happening, but unlike more conventional films -- of our time that is -- there is no explosion, no catharsis, no overt acknowledgment; this is 1909, after all, and people don't do that.
"The Golden Bowl" is another in the Merchant-Ivory collaboration, in which Ismail Merchant produces, James Ivory directs, and their screenwriter is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Over the years they have made many brilliant period films, including "Heat and Dust," "Howard's End," and "The Remains of the Day." I don't know of another director who is so sure-handed with an era not his own. But this time I have some problems with the acting. His key actress, Uma Thurman - playing an American -- has for some reason chosen a kind of mid-Atlantic accent that we usually associate with college productions of Shaw or Wilde, slurring words that should be stressed, and in her speech indicating rather than feeling her emotions. Kate Beckinsale, a Briton, is much better with her American accent, but her character is strangely lifeless. The fault is in the script, not in her work; we have seen her to much better advantage in other films.
And Jeremy Northam, as the Prince, is badly lacking in sexual fire and attractiveness. He is too deliberate, too hidden, to rouse much lust in anyone. Huston, normally so good in almost anything, is bizarre here. In the middle of the film she suddenly acquires a southern (American) accent, which then comes and goes from scene to scene. Only Nick Nolte, an actor without much range, comes through as a believable tycoon, satisfied but not smug, thinking of doing good as doing good was known at the turn of that century.
I was also bothered by a choppiness, perhaps the result of compressing a complex novel into two hours of film time, but also within scenes and sequences. The film lacked what at other times has been a Merchant-Ivory trademark: a seamless flow of character and story that carries us along in its bosom from beginning to end. "The Golden Bowl," like its icon in the film, is flawed at its heart.