September 30, 2001 -- Merchant Ivory productions (produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory) are an acquired taste. Often, there is little happening on the surface, but seething passions roil just beneath. "The Golden Bowl" is similar to a couple of other Merchant-Ivory productions, "Howard's End" and "Remains of the Day." Upper class people, ridiculously rich, polite, subtle verbal sparing on the surface, with seething passions underneath.
Based on the Henry James novel, "The Golden Bowl" tells a tale of people who marry for money, but love other people's spouses. It is also about Europeans who feel superior to Americans and about people who eventually do the right thing and who make the best of it. The primary characters are Charlotte Stant (played by Uma Thurman of "Sweet and Lowdown"), her good friend Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale of "Pearl Harbor") Maggie's fabulously wealthy father, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte of "Affliction") and Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam of "Amistad").
The Prince marries Maggie because her family is wealthy, but he still carries a torch for Charlotte. Maggie's friend Fanny Assingham (Anjelica Huston of "Buffalo 66") knows about the torch, but decides not to tell Maggie, hoping things will work out. Things seem to be under control for a few years, but circumstances cause Amerigo and Charlotte to drift together again. What will happen? We see many images in the film that seem to indicate a tragedy lies ahead. There are portents of murders and executions.
People in the film talk about what's going on, they even threaten each other, but in an extremely delicate and circumspect manner. It is the most subtle sort of verbal thrust and parry. This kind of highly skilled verbal combat is reserved almost exclusively for Merchant-Ivory films, it seems. It's not idle chatter about adultery. It is not the vulgar trash talking that passes for dialogue in many films these days. This is dialogue that is almost an art form. The acting is very good, especially Thurman, who smokes up the screen. The dialogue seems to be uniformly delivered in a kind of stagey, stiff way. It takes some getting used to. There is also the usual Merchant-Ivory attention to detail, lavish costumes and sets, rich, vibrant period music, beautiful scenery and fully saturated colors. The film just drips class.
As you might imagine, Merchant-Ivory films can be a bit tedious and slow-moving. It is a deliberate style choice. There's nothing wrong with it, really, it is just not my cup of tea. My favorite Merchant-Ivory film of this ilk is "Remains of the Day." My favorite Henry James adaptation is the more stirring "Wings of the Dove." Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has also done screenplays for several other Ivory films, including "Remains of the Day" and "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" "Surviving Picasso" and "Jefferson in Paris." My favorite performance in "The Golden Bowl" is by James Fox ("Sexy Beast"). He steals the show with his wry, humorous portrayal of Colonel Bob Assingham. It is a welcome bit of comic relief. This film rates a B.
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