The Golden Bowl
Director: James Ivory. Cast: Uma Thurman, Jeremy Northam, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale, Anjelica Huston, James Fox, Madeleine Potter. Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by Henry James).

Worse than meeting someone who is boring is meeting someone who's been told he is boring and too over-deliberately tries to be lively. Sad to say, the once-hallowed Merchant-Ivory team seem to have given over to this embarrassing compensatory impulse. Their superior back-to-back adaptations of Howards End and The Remains of the Day in 1992 and 1993 almost surely stand as their finest achievements, though even then detractors accused them (falsely, I think) of bearing far less interest in character than décor, of being too novelistic in their approach to cinema. Perhaps what saved these triumphant movies was that the characters themselves, like Samuel West's Leonard Bast and Anthony Hopkins' Mr. Stevens, tended to treat their lives like novels; their preference for mind over heart suited perfectly the strengths of their adaptors.

Now, though, with The Golden Bowl, director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and their screenwriter and ghost partner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have followed a half-decade of subpar work with a truly God-awful film, and one doubts it could have been otherwise. James' diffuse, allusive style has nothing at all in common with the filmmakers' inveterate literalism; their egghead, conservatively verbal approach to the world couldn't be more opposite to the generally rash, vindictive, and intemperate mentalities of The Golden Bowl's characters. Where the coltish arrogance of Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady continues to go under-valued, and Iain Softley's The Wings of the Dove was so evocatively ambiguous, almost any words of praise for The Golden Bowl feel like too much. Sure, the costumes are eye-catchers, the exteriors formidable: in every other respect, Ivory & Co. can find no toehold for their talents, and show themselves even more to disadvantage in trying to be different filmmakers than they are.

One of these failed attempts at stylistic departure is a scene of torch-bearing invaders ambushing two Italian lovers in their bed and dragging the man out of the room to his death. This anecdote, drawn from the fablic history of the estate of Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), is coarser in look and in content than most of what Jhabvala's scripts or her teammates' movies usually offer: the movements of both the people and the camera are brute and a little busy, like the climactic apprehensions of the queen's rivals in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth. The Golden Bowl uses the scene as general context for the fierce marital and extra-marital intrigues that will transpire in most of its palatial locales. In case we miss the point, Ivory shows the same scene again three-quarters of the way into the picture, when most of the characters' dangerous secrets have been exposed. Here, then, we have a perfect illustration of Ivory being too typically literal (he doesn't trust us to remember a prologue from 90 minutes earlier) and too atypically nervy. The same dual critique applies to a frank erotic tryst between Northam's Amerigo and Uma Thurman's Charlotte Stant; though "frank" for James Ivory means nothing more than a shirtless man over a panting woman, it still exceeds James' own prudishness, more titillating in its very silence.

A handful of other moments from across the film—shots contorted in a funhouse mirror, an overheated, Fosse-esque dance interlude by a troupe of "exotics"—similarly strain to prove that The Golden Bowl isn't the work of your father's (or your maiden aunt's) James Ivory. None of these scenes, however, helpfully or credibly expand this filmmaker's repertoire of expression. The only feeling communicated is Ivory's own shame to be the filmmaker he is: that is, a mostly frill-free tactician of taste whose best hopes lie in a disciplined photographer, a smart composer, and a reliable hand at directing his actors. The Golden Bowl would be less excruciating if these three baseline gifts were operating properly apart from the stilted "experimental" scenes. Tony Pierce-Roberts, who also shot Howards End, knows his way adequately around a camera, but lazy editing keeps sapping his compositions. The Golden Bowl keeps arranging its scenes into the same assembly-line pattern—exterior shot of a house, two people talking, intimate close-up, two people talking, exterior shot of a house—as though cinematic precision were a matter of finding a model and sticking to it. Ironically, longtime composer Richard Robbins, whose music in The Remains of the Day especially made dazzling use of repeated motifs (sensibly mimicking the routine cycle of household upkeep) is anonymous and unhelpful in this film. The score sounds too much like its predecessors, but then again not nearly as elegant or as specifically calibrated to scenes and themes.

The shortcomings of the performances, finally, cement the impression that The Golden Bowl is not just a poor picture but a picture made with no reliable sense of its own strengths and weaknesses. Any sensible film artist would have cut away from Uma Thurman, flailing with Charlotte Stant's psychological complexity and depending on the single gesture of fondling her jewelry to communicate every possible emotion: frustration, anger, cunning, eagerness, eroticism. Disastrously, Ivory and his editor, John David Allen, keep our eyes on Thurman's insipid gesturing even when other, better actors are propelling a scene. Nick Nolte, as Charlotte's much older husband, easily acquits himself best in the cast, half because he's been at this acting game so much longer (even previously collaborating with Merchant-Ivory in 1995's Jefferson in Paris), and partially because he has less screen time than his younger co-stars. He's allowed to play Adam Verver with shades of mystery—does he know his wife is cheating with his son-in-law? does he care? does he only have eyes (those kinds of eyes) for his own daughter?—without the screenplay and the camera mercilessly hauling him into the spotlight to expose his reactions and motives.

Somewhere between Thurman's helplessness and Nolte's shrewd underplaying are Northam's passable imitation of an Italian lothario and Kate Beckinsale's Maggie. Like Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence, Kate has to begin the film as a guileless chit and finish up as a toughened-up manipulator. Her playing tends toward the superficial, but often because Jhabvala traps her into speaking ideas and realizations that sound absurd in the mouth of anyone but a disembodied narrator on a page. Anjelica Huston, as the only supporting character with appreciable screen time, can't decide whether she's a Southerner or not, and all of the actors seem to drift like castaways waiting for someone to take charge. It's easy to see why even Miramax, Hollywood's most notoriously indiscriminate studio, dropped this itchy, airless movie from its catalogue after Cannes audiences booed over its end credits over a year ago. Crude in its editing and its psychology, directed by someone trying not to be himself, The Golden Bowl is a leaden bore. Grade: D+

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