Somehow, this Ismail Merchant-James Ivory interpretation of The Golden Bowl, one of Henry James’ most unwieldy novels, manages to be simultaneously magisterial and dull. Much like the story, the composition appears to be about acquisition—as the characters seek to satisfy their rapacious appetites, the film delivers scene after scene of exquisite particulars, to the point that you might feel vaguely overwhelmed by the time the two hours-plus running time is done. Repeated wide-screen images of grand gardens and fabulous artwork, Italian palazzos and British manors are magnificent and the filmmakers’s attention to period (1903-1909) detail in costumes, food, furniture, and even transportation (sublime trains, quaint buggies, putt-putting cars) would make Martin Scorsese proud.
All these visual perfections also intimate The Golden Bowl‘s weakness, however, which is its lack of perspective, or perhaps more precisely, its narrow perspective. Working from James is always something of a bear, of course—his characters obsess over nuances and innuendoes that readers hopefully recognize as trivial, or at least deleterious as obsessions. Merchant and Ivory, and their regular screenwriter Ruth Prawler Jhabvala, have experience with translating James to the screen, having worked together on The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984). But their latest adaptation, while laced through with graceful moments, translates much of the novel’s coy phrasing into literal representations and its characters into awkward embodiments of era-bound sentiments. The Ververs and their consorts are all four turned into indelicate types, constrained by cumbrous dialogue (much of it lifted directly from the novel), fussy performances, bad wigs and facial hair, and episodic plotting.
Set at the turn of the century, The Golden Bowl takes up one of James’ favorite topics—the vulgarity of Americans in Europe. Here, American expatriate Charlotte (Uma Thurman) is anxious about her status (as are most all of James’ heroines), for compared to the folks she runs with, she’s positively “poor.” She’s also in love with an Italian prince named Amerigo (Jeremy Northam with an unconvincing Italian accent), and as the film opens, their affair is ending (for the time being), because he is also relatively “poor.” Though he’s inherited the Palazzo Ugolini, he can’t afford to maintain the place. To make ends meet, he’s dumping Charlotte (who’s very distraught at his decision) and marrying the fabulously wealthy Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale), who also happens to be a childhood friend of Charlotte. As soon as you see the reputation-obsessed Amerigo and the Amerigo-obsessed Charlotte, you know trouble will brew. The film ensures that you know this, by matching their betrayal to come with a story that Amerigo is telling Charlotte, of some ancestors who engaged in an affair—a wife and her son-in-law, discovered in bed together and punished severely by her husband/his father.
But where the Italian story is about sexual lust, the vulgar Americans tend to be more interested in material lust—they want to own everything: art, houses, people, information. And so it happens that Charlotte exhibits (again and again) a melodramatic possessiveness toward Amerigo. At the time of his wedding to Maggie, Charlotte is all atwitter with ostensible love and devotion, but really, she’s scheming to “have” him, as she once did. They agree to pretend they never knew one another. The precise reason for this decision is never clear, though a meddlesome family friend named Fanny (Anjelica Huston)—there are a lot of Fannys in James novels, usually social boors and bad news for the folks they think they to want to help—suggests that it’s because Maggie is naive and pure and needs to be protected. Charlotte and Amerigo adopt this rationale and repeat it to one another like a mantra, whenever they worry they’re doing the wrong thing. This is, of course, one of those Jamesian contortions of motive that will inevitably be revealed and ruin everything.
And so, when Maggie dispatches Amerigo to fetch Charlotte, ignorant of their past liaison, she has no idea that she’s aiding and abetting in the rekindling of their passion; or perhaps better, of their habit, for Charlotte, as played by Thurman, appears to have very little passion in her, just increasingly mannered behaviors. Upon being fetched, Charlotte convinces Amerigo take her shopping for a wedding gift for Maggie. At a small shop they find the titular bowl (made of crystal and gold), which Amerigo discourages his companion from buying because he spots the flaw in it immediately. Charlotte, being the American, misses the crack, and it follows that she can’t see the trouble she will be stirring with her next move, which is to hook up with Maggie’s father, the significantly named Adam Verver (Nick Nolte).
Adam is introduced on screen with the title, “America’s First Billionaire” (this is the level of overstatement to which the film resorts repeatedly, not trusting its audience to follow even the simplest plot points). Maggie is initially pleased with the match, for it ostensibly frees her up to spend more time with her husband and baby boy (a prop here, nothing else). But it turns out that the pairs break off in other ways: cut to a few years later, the camera opening on an opulent party at some mucky-muck’s palace, where Amerigo and Charlotte are keeping one another company, while Maggie is at home taking care of her reportedly ailing father.
Tongues wag, as they must, but if everyone in their circle knows Charlotte and Adam’s marriage is one of convenience, gossips are left guessing about whose convenience. Obviously, Charlotte gets to be rich, well-dressed, and admired by many, and Adam gets a pretty young thing to adorn his arm as he globetrots in search of the finest art treasures, which he’s collecting in order to bestow on the world as his great legacy (he’s planning his “great work,” a museum built to house his collection in “American City”—James-speak for the Vulgar Urbanworld that is the U.S.). Yet the willfully naive Maggie also benefits from the union, for once she and Adam figure out that they really do like one another’s company more than anyone else’s, they feel less guilty when abandoning their spouses together. So crass, so willful, so artless are the Ververs that they just can’t abide by the old world rules. This allows them to resist knowing anything about Amerigo and Charlotte’s relationship: they prefer to think it’s as platonic as their own.
The film offers up their ignorance as exquisite pain—they’re so beautifully appointed, that their emotional shenanigans don’t seem nearly so rough and tumble as those on, say, Jerry Springer. But they’re playing the same games, wanting to possess each other and the spotlight that comes with recognized and successful power-tripping. And so the four of them gather occasionally in sitting rooms, posing for each other, going on about how fortunate they all are that they get along so well. Eventually, such self-congratulatory chatter gets tedious, and that’s when the drama kicks in, repressed and prolonged and very meaningful.
Charlotte and the prince probably come off worst, but that’s only because they try too hard to be manipulative, and they’re so bad at it. Maggie, the much-protected naif, ends up making the meanest and most effective manipulation, and she gets what she wants. This makes her perhaps the most European of the Americans, because she leaves Charlotte dangling in a very discomfitted state. Dreading her return to the States as one of Adam Verver’s “treasures,” Charlotte has a nightmare vision composed of old-timey movie clips of workers and miners and traffic. She wakes in a sweat, hand to her forehead. By this time, you are likely to be feeling her pain. And oh my dear, it’s just too much.