Impassioned James adaptation another near-classic corset opera from producer-director team
Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory's names have become synonymous with refined and flowery literary drawing room dramas because of their innate ability to instill such period pieces with unfettered emotions and tangible performances that transcend the corseted, courtly trappings of the genre.
You usually know what you're getting into when you see one of their pictures -- passionate romances hindered by 19th Century social mores. But that doesn't mean there aren't surprises, and in their Henry James adaptation "The Golden Bowl," the biggest surprise is Uma Thurman.
An actress known for playing most roles with an exaggerated sense of erudition whether the part calls for it or not, in this film she's entirely natural and complexly human as Charlotte Stant, a beautiful young American expatriate whose heart is thrown into turmoil by a complicated romantic roundelay.
We first meet Charlotte in 1903 at the dilapidated chateau of her Italian lover, a prince named Amerigo (Jeremy Northam) whose family fortunes have dwindled so that he finds himself having to marry for money -- much to the chagrin of Charlotte, who has none. Her clothes are elegant and she moves in the same social circles, but only thanks to the hospitality of wealthy friends with many extra bedrooms.
Prince Amerigo's bride-to-be is Charlotte's dearest friend Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale), the daughter of an American coal tycoon (Nick Nolte) who has been living in Europe for many years collecting art and antiquities for his legacy -- an ostentatious museum he's planned for his plebeian home town.
At first Charlotte tries to take her lover's marriage in stride, and she agrees with Amerigo that Maggie, a fragile dove of a girl, must never know they were ever even friends, let alone lovers. But when the film jumps forward a couple years, we discover she has arranged her own marriage -- to Maggie's father -- in an attempt to stay close to the prince and rekindle their affair.
Driven by Charlotte's blinding adoration, Thurman's fervid performance remains sympathetic even as she becomes treacherously manipulative while trying to insinuate herself back into Amerigo's bed, behind the backs of her husband and her devoted friend.
Northam, who has proven himself a wildly underrated actor in two other period pics in recent years ("An Ideal Husband" and especially "The Winslow Boy"), is every inch the virtuous and honorable nobleman in portraying Amerigo's internal struggle as he exercises his will over his desire for Charlotte and tries to convince her to do the same.
But she is relentless and has many opportunities to tempt the prince since Maggie and her father are practically inseparable (leaving Charlotte and Amerigo to their own devices much of the time) and blindly trusting.
Beckinsale (the romantic lead in next week's "Pearl Harbor") is amazing to watch in her deceptively simple performance as na•ve but observant Maggie. She seems vulnerable to be sure, but not entirely helpless as she slowly comes to suspect an ongoing liaison going on under her nose.
Nolte is also a brilliant casting choice to play a rough-around-the-edges, self-made man of the 19th Century -- although it takes a few scenes to adjust to seeing this gruff, contemporary actor in period costume and speaking in rather formalized English. (Another powerful performance comes from Anjelica Huston, as a society matchmaker wracked with misgivings after introducing Amerigo to Maggie even though she new about his affair with Charlotte.)
From its profoundly well-realized characters to its handsome cinematography to its beautiful (but not conspicuous) costumes, "The Golden Bowl" is classic Merchant-Ivory. And while the film could have used a little shoring up in its waiting- for- the- other- shoe- to- drop last act, until that point the director never dilly-dallies in the least. If he can get what he needs from a few pivotal moments then jump forward even by a several years, he does so without hesitation -- and without losing an ounce of the story's sonorous emotions because the actors are so fully invested in their parts.
A few of the Merchant-Ivory signature faux pas (like irritating overt symbolism) keep the picture from unquestionable greatness, and a few extremely out-of-context sequences (a grainy, silent movie-style daydream montage and extraneous historical flashbacks) occasionally send it off on tangents that take the viewer out of the story.
But none of its minor shortcomings can take the viewer away from the talent with which this cast brings to Henry James' characters and the complexity of their hearts and their relationships so vividly to life.