The Golden Bowl

"What awfulness is there between them?" The question is being posed to Fanny (the great Anjelica Huston) by her friend Maggie (Kate Beckinsale). Maggie, the naive daughter of American tycoon Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), has good reason to suspect that her husband, Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), an Italian prince, and Charlotte (Uma Thurman), her father's wife, are off fucking their brains out behind the backs of both Ververs.

Not even the crudest Cliffs Notes would reduce The Golden Bowl, written in 1904 and the last published novel by Henry James, to such a blunt précis. My bad. The thing is, we have the film version of The Golden Bowl to discuss, and no time - like I had in grad school - to cut through the jungle thicket of James' sentences. But you get my point: James is a bitch to adapt. Directors as adept as Jane Campion (The Portrait of a Lady), Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove) and Agnieszka Holland (Washington Square) have been sucked into the maw of his prose.

All the more reason to admire producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The team had previously adapted two other James novels - The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984) - but the notoriously complex The Golden Bowl presented a daunting maze. Would Jhabvala be able to carve a coherent narrative out of the book without losing the author's subtle ironies and feathery nuances? Would Merchant's sumptuous production - he arranged for cinematographer Tony Pierce Roberts to bring his cameras inside real London mansions, country houses and Italian palazzos, complete with their own art collections - overwhelm the story? Would Ivory circumvent some odd casting choices? The tall, vigorous Nolte is hardly the diminutive Adam of the novel. The very British Northam (The Winslow Boy) seems miscast as a passionate Italian. Ditto English flower Beckinsale as a feisty American daughter and hip-chick Thurman as a modern woman of the century past.

My advice is: Just watch the movie. It casts a potent spell. Nolte, a terrific actor, puts his own stamp on Adam, a robber baron willing to endure an adulterous wife for the love of his daughter. Adam's dream - to create a museum for a newly industrialized America that couldn't care less about European art - is the essential Jamesian conflict. The culture clashes also take a toll on Maggie and the prince, which Beckinsale and Northam articulate cogently. And Thurman grows into her role, creating a willful character of surprising resilience. Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala have given their film room to breathe - they had to buy it back from Miramax to avoid cuts and distortions. Their work isn't perfect. Like the golden bowl of the title, the film has flaws that surface beauty can't hide. But The Golden Bowl is elegant and passionate in ways that stick with you. The superb Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala adaptations, including Howards End, A Room With a View and The Remains of the Day, have little place in the multiplex world of Freddy Got Fingered. They have something better: a chance to stand the test of time.

From The Archives Issue 868: May 10, 2001