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IN SHORT: For the arthouse. [Rated R for a sex scene. 127 minutes]
One of the reasons that we don't compare to source material is precisely because of material like the novels of Henry James, viewed by every literature professor we've ever had as the best written material in the "modern" era. We struggled through endless hours trying to make sense of the dense vocabulary that inhabits the books. Simply, we hated every minute of it. Which is why we appreciate any adaptation that can make sense of his work. Sometimes, as with Portrait of a Lady, the adaptations are as impossible to sit through as the books. Sometimes, as with The Golden Bowl from the Merchant Ivory team, they are not. But sitting for a Merchant Ivory production brings with it its own set of expectations in terms of production pizzazz and The Golden Bowl let us down on that note.
As with every Merchant Ivory production, The Golden Bowl is a sumptuous view of the earliest days of the Twentieth Century through a celluloid looking glass. It is also a very intimate, as in small cast and absence of lavish party scenes or extraordinary amount of servant extras. In the heart of the coming storm are Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam) of Italy and his American lover Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman). Amerigo is engaged to marry Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale), only daughter of America's first billionaire, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), who built his bituminous coal mining company into a cartel. His trips through Europe, under the guise of nouveau riche spending have all been a cover for an extraordinary act of "piracy" -- the purchase of great works of art, all of which will be shipped back to a new museum being designed to bring art and culture to the coal miners of American City. (We'll point out that James wrote the book in 1904, long before J. Paul Getty's romp through war ravaged Europe to stock San Simeon).
Maggie has no idea that her best friend and her beau know each other. That secret will be even more shocking than any hint of adultery -- with a story having secrets and lies and adultery at its center, it is important to remember that by the strict moral tone of the times, a passionate kiss given outside the boundaries of the marital contract was considered adultery. So was the real deal, but we'll come back to that.
The Bowl of the title is an antique found in a small British shop. Charlotte and Amerigo spend their last afternoon together, shopping for a wedding present for Maggie. With one ping of a finger Amerigo can hear by the ringing one that there is a crack in the Golden Bowl, and passes on the purchase. The shopkeeper offers to hold the bowl off the market until the lady (Charlotte) can decide if she wishes to purchase.
And in the ways of great society, Amerigo marries Maggie. Maggie, who is inseparable from her widowed dad, insists (at the prodding of friend of the family Fanny Assingham (Anjelica Huston), that he be married so as not to be alone. This he does, to Charlotte. Even after the vows are exchanged, Maggie spends more time with her father than with her husband. The sort-of cuckolded Amerigo is thus free to squire the also free Charlotte around to the various social events that Maggie prefers not to.
Only once do the former lovers break their individual marriage vows. What is more important is how all the parties react to the discovery of, if not adultery, then the intentional misrepresentation that Charlotte and Amerigo did not know each other before their individual marriages. It is five years before Maggie, searching out a present for her father, finds the Bowl, and the Shoopkeeper accidentally helps her put two and two together. Maggie's innocence falls like an apple from the tree.
And, all in proper, iron rod up your backside manner, all the involved parties try to find out who knows what and endeavor to produce face saving explanations. In this society it isn't so much what you do, as long as you're discreet about it, it's more about what twist of language is used to uncover the lie or redirect attention towards more, for the times, pleasant matters. Maggie may be a daddy's girl but her power is directly influenced by her wealth and she knows it. So does Amerigo. It is Charlotte who lives in the fantasy world that all will work out and true love can conquer all, even as it becomes fairly evident that it can't and won't.
The casting is dead on -- Beckinsale as the thimble brained but totally loyal Maggie; desperately in love with a man she can never have and the remarkable Nolte -- we almost forget that Verver's wealth was built on a background of seven days a week, twelve hours a day work day running a mine. He's the toughest s.o.b. on the block, and he only needs to warn Amerigo that he is capable of awful things to keep the man in line. Uma Thurman does a grand job as the woman who comes undone and then must rebuild herself into one of statesmanlike stature, as she shepherds the art collection back to American City, a return to the States that is akin to a journey back in to the gages of hell. Running underneath it all is a nifty little flashback sequence which opens the film, setting the stage for Amerigo's, um, indiscretions to come.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Golden Bowl, he would have paid . . .
We'd rent. As mentioned, based on our prior experience with James, his original
two volume masterpiece would probably have put us into a coma. The film adaptation
of The Golden Bowl limits itself, for the most part, to the four principals
plus Fanny, who provides a handy character to hiss at. It lacks the lavish crowded
setting that populate past Merchant Ivory films and this is something we miss.
As we've written before, you know if you have a predilection to appreciate the
material that comes from the Merchant Ivory studios. Go by what you know.
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