The filmmaking team of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala previously took a whack at James in 1984 with The Bostonians, but didn't find the affinity they'd famously found with such E.M. Forster novels as Howard's End. In The Golden Bowl, the heart of Henry James still eludes them, although it's not for want of trying on their part.
If you're expecting another Merchant-Ivory corset-and-teacup period piece, you'll be surprised by the opening scene, in which an adulterous, Renaissance-era son and stepmother face a bloody punishment. It's an episode from the family history of Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), an Italian aristocrat secretly romancing American expatriate Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman).
Despite how hot and heavy they are for each other, neither one has money, and this is the kind of story in which working for a living is not an option. Despite his passion for Charlotte, Amerigo marries her friend Maggie (Pearl Harbor's Kate Beckinsale), the only child of Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), whom a subtitle helpfully informs us is "America's first billionaire." Amerigo and Charlotte's history is known only to a family friend with the immeasurably wonderful name of Fanny Assingham (Anjelica Huston).
A few years later, after Maggie and Amerigo have a child, Charlotte agrees to marry the much older Verver in order to be closer to Amerigo. Soon enough the two are a public item at English social events, but The Golden Bowl doesn't present the predictable jealousies of a four-sided romantic triangle. At times, Charlotte and Amerigo are jealous of the bond between father and daughter.
A motif of art appreciation moves through the film, as Verver refers to his sprawling collection as "the plunder of Europe" and gets jazzed over the prospects of a new Raphael or some "Turkish tile." Nolte's typically most comfortable playing rough-necked guys with their hearts on their sleeves, but here he comes across quite credibly as a nouveau riche aristocrat and art lover. Still, when the tensions between the two couples come to a head, he projects little of the ruthlessness you'd expect from an industrialist of the robber baron era.
Director James Ivory provides a constant counterpoint of artwork and actors, frequently framing them against florid murals or alongside nude sculptures, until it seems like advertising, pointing out the currents between the characters. One early scene has a neatly pointed line where Amerigo describes an ancestor who was slowly poisoned by unwittingly ingesting the gold leaf of his mansion. Unfortunately, the film's symbolism is otherwise never so subtle.
The golden bowl of the title looks rather like the Holy Grail and becomes a thudding metaphor for the film's doomed marriages: It's exquisite but has a hidden flaw. When it reappears in a shop, you half expect someone to ask, "How much for the representation of our luxurious way of life built on a foundation of deceit?" In the film's second hour, a lurid dance number echoes the adultery plot of the prologue, putting too much emphasis on them both.
The film's artifice takes a bizarre turn when Verver seeks to return to the States to build a museum for his acquisitions. As a true Jamesian heroine, Charlotte opposes the move, hewing to European sophistication instead of American utilitarianism. The strange part is that Verver plans to build his museum in a major metropolis called "American City." Fanny even says of Charlotte, "American City -- the very name must sound like doom to her." The decision seems like some gratuitous Yankee-bashing, even though the source and most of the cast are from our side of the Atlantic.
Beckinsale is British and you never forget it, even though Maggie is supposedly American. She comes across as a credulous dupe for much of the film, but the actress reveals an effective fiery quality late in the film. While Northam has an appropriately elegant bearing, his Italian accent, though understated, always sounds self-conscious.
In films like The Avengers or Batman and Robin Thurman can convince you that her only talent is wearing clothes well. As in Henry and June, she's more impressive here, causing you to reevaluate that view, but only to a point. As much as we believe Charlotte's passions and selfishness, we never get enough of the character's inner life to make her complex or sympathetic.
The film contrasts sharply with The Wings of the Dove, in which Helena Bonham Carter waded in comparably muddy emotional waters, yet left you aching for her plight. In The Golden Bowl, you never really identify or empathize with any of the characters. Instead, you regard them from a distance, as if they're art treasures studied by the icy narrator in Browning's "My Last Duchess," or Verver's own coldly appraising eye.