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There's Spoiled Fruit in James's 'Golden Bowl'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2001


    'The Golden Bowl' Nick Nolte stars in "The Golden Bowl."
(20th Century Fox)
Like the title vessel, "The Golden Bowl" is a gilded bibelot, something pretty for the mantelpiece, something more for the maid to dust. Its splendor cannot be denied, but then again neither can the emptiness of this Henry James adaptation – the least of the lavish, reverential period pieces from the team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

The three, known for their scrupulous production values, once again take refuge within the intricately re-created drawing rooms of the idle rich in Edwardian England. James's ambiguous novels are so difficult to dramatize that James himself failed in his attempt to bring "The Americans"to the stage. The filmmakers haven't managed to wrest vivid dialogue from the thicket of prose. They've lost the nuances, dumbed down the characters, till all that remains is a musty, melodramatic story line that seems even staler in light of Terence Davies' adaptation of Edith Wharton's similarly plotted "The House of Mirth."

"The Golden Bowl," the third of the Merchant-Ivory Jamesian melodramas, is far from a total disaster, but it suffers mightily from its deliberate pacing, pale characterizations, obvious plot and some woeful miscasting. Uma Thurman and Nick Nolte are especially incongruous in the Gilded Age, while Anjelica Huston and James Fox are to these manners born.

Emotional turbulence simmers under the era's civilized veneer, but repression isn't a specialty of many American actors. Thurman's catty Charlotte all but licks her dainty paws. Meanwhile Nolte, as Mr. Verver, a robber baron, threatens to burst like an overcooked banger out of his tuxedo. He's positively constipated as a widowed billionaire caught up in a chaste but almost incestuous relationship with his daughter Maggie (slight Kate Beckinsale).

Maggie is a close friend of Thurman's Charlotte, a blazing American beauty with no resources but her social connections. Charlotte is absorbed in an affair with Amerigo (hand-kissing Jeremy Northam), a penniless Italian prince who ends the relationship when he becomes engaged to the European-bred Maggie for her money. The marriage was arranged by Huston's character, ostensibly a well-meaning friend of both women.

Not one to give up easily, Charlotte shows up at the Ververs' English estate just days before the wedding for one last tryst with Amerigo. The lovers also take the opportunity to search for a wedding gift for the bride-to-be: a golden bowl that appears to be in perfect condition but has a well-nigh invisible flaw in its filigree. Can you say metaphor, boys and girls?

Before the honeymoon, Maggie begs Charlotte to stay with her father, lest he grow lonely in her absence. Verver and Charlotte become fond of each other, and to Maggie's delight Charlotte becomes her stepmother – but a wicked one she is. Amerigo and Charlotte keep their secret – or so they think – and the four become entangled in the proverbial web of deceit.

It takes what feels like forever to establish the characters, as the story shuttles dizzily at the outset between Amerigo's crumbling palace and various British showplaces. The first third of the movie might be mistaken for a tour of stately European homes and the characters for befuddled guides.

Basically they have everything, and compared with most of us, they have little to complain about. So who cares about these people anyway? They're about as sympathetic as robber geek Bill Gates.

"The Golden Bowl" (130 minutes) is rated R for sexual scenery.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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