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Somnolence Is 'Golden'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2001


    'The Golden Bowl' Nick Nolte shines in the dull "The Golden Bowl." (Lions Gate)
The Merchant-Ivory team is back with another handsome, dramatically moribund adaptation of a grand old classic. And I can see the same old crowds lining up dutifully to see it, sight unseen.

Would it be gauche of moi to mention that the movie's a stultifying bore?

The literary source, this time, is Henry James's "The Golden Bowl." And for this feel-every-minute, three-hour movie of the same name, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory (who celebrate the longest partnership in independent cinema) have outfitted Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam with some fine antique costumes. Oh, the die-hards will appreciate that!

I expect, too, they'll sigh volubly at the grand old homes in the story–wonderful mansions and gardens in England and Italy that are to die for! But I have to wonder if anyone will realize what a plodding affair they're sitting through. Of course, opinions and taste are widespread in this great land of ours.

Set in England and Italy at the beginning of the 20th century, this is about a Jamesian foursome with sticky romantic problems.

Let's start with the unshakable love between American expatriate Charlotte Stant (Thurman) and Italian aristocrat Prince Amerigo (Northam). They're mad about each other, but they had to call off the romance because they were too poor to marry.

Fast forward to the beginning of the story, where the prince is engaged to Charlotte's lifelong friend, Maggie (Beckinsale). She's a sweetheart, Maggie is. So Charlotte and the prince decide to keep mum.

They indulge themselves in one last secret rendezvous before the wedding: a shopping trip to Bloomsbury, so Charlotte can buy Maggie a wedding present. When they become interested in a golden bowl, however, they unwittingly start off a tragic chain of events. But enough of that.

Maggie is the daughter of Adam Verver (Nolte), a billionaire and renowned art collector. These two have an unusually close relationship, which all but squeezes the prince out of the picture. So when Maggie–now married to the prince and the mother of a new baby–invites Charlotte to their English country house, trouble begins.

Maggie encourages a friendship between Charlotte and the old man, which leads to their engagement. Which creates a strange situation, indeed.

Again, enough of that. Prepare for a few hours of intrigue and deception and fine couture, in the company of these four, plus characters played by Anjelica Huston, James Fox and Madeleine Potter.

This is the kind of project that Merchant and Ivory do in their sleep. Unfortunately, it shows. Although Thurman and Nolte have fine turns–they're the best in the ensemble–they're prisoners of bad pacing. Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose script marks her third James adaptation (including "The Europeans" and "The Bostonians") for the Merchant-Ivory team, tends to make every scene equally long and weighty. This takes away the structural dynamism. We're forced to follow things in a sequential monotony. After all these years, Jhabvala appears to have learned nothing of cinematic rhythm. She's unbearably literal and literary about her task–not the ideal requirements for a scriptwriter, even of literary works. Director Ivory is similarly pedestrian about his moviemaking, and apparently impervious to the idea of editing. Which gives us a whole lot of time with the characters and the story–much more than is necessary. Ultimately, "The Golden Bowl" is a victim of painfully drawn out excessiveness–and not even Thurman's spirited performance solves that.

THE GOLDEN BOWL (R, 130 minutes)Contains some sexual material. At the Cinema Arts Theatre, Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Cineplex Odeon Janus.


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