The novels of such late-19th- and early-20th-century luminaries as Henry James, E.M. Forster and Edith Wharton (the first two have provided rich source material for producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory) present an array of characters who harbor a similar longing for the gilded life -- in extreme cases, even a sense of entitlement to it. Upper-crust status at the turn of the century depended upon having money -- either being born to it or marrying into it. While the former was, of course, preferable, the latter was completely acceptable. Two recent films, The House of Mirth, adapted from Wharton, and James's own The Wings of a Dove, a 1997 project starring Helena Bonham Carter, are prime examples of such stories, which took the lighthearted novel of manners (think A Room with a View) and added a dose of tragedy.
The Golden Bowl was James's final novel and the one with which he seems to have been most satisfied. Its plot is reminiscent of The Wings of a Dove, in which the financially strapped, English-born Kate encourages her fiancé to marry her best friend, a guileless American heiress, so that he may inherit the dying girl's fortune and then wed his true love.
In The Golden Bowl, Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman), an impoverished American expatriate living in England, encourages her former lover, the equally penniless Italian prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), to marry her school friend, the ingenuous, exceedingly wealthy American Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale) but, at the same time, to continue his long-standing affair with Charlotte.
James ups the ante a bit in this tale: Charlotte marries Maggie's widowed father, Adam (Nick Nolte), an American billionaire who has devoted his life to his daughter ever since the death of his beloved wife many years earlier. Father and daughter have lived on their English country estate all these years, two individuals who, like slender half-moons, together form a perfect circle with impenetrable borders.
In marrying Amerigo, Maggie worries that she is abandoning her father. Unwilling to siphon attention away from him, she neglects her husband instead. The situation changes little when Adam, primarily to keep Maggie from worrying about him, marries Charlotte. The bond between father and daughter proves not just unbreakable but unbendable. Amerigo and Charlotte, whose earlier relationship is unknown to the Ververs, are increasingly thrown together, shuttled off to parties while father and daughter remain at home. It isn't difficult to predict what happens next.
There is an ambiguity at the heart of The Golden Bowl that should have worked in the story's favor but doesn't, at least not here. The question is, For whom is the audience supposed to root? Or at least feel a certain empathy? Charlotte is treacherous and Amerigo weak, but Adam and Maggie aren't interested in opening up their little circle. The lack of a concrete villain is one problem. But the absence of a defined (not to be misconstrued as single) perspective from which to view the various machinations is an even greater flaw, leaving the viewer without an emotional connection to any of the personalities.
Is this Maggie's story or Amerigo's? There is no reason why it can't be both, but neither gains sufficient momentum to work either alone or together. It's difficult to tell where the fault lies. There are so many potential nuances to the story, few of them realized (the script is by accomplished screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the indispensable third pillar of the Merchant-Ivory triad).
The actors are less than stellar but more than adequate. Nolte is such a contemporary performer that he always seems a bit stiff in period dramas. Beckinsale, who looks remarkably like a dark-haired Nicole Kidman, is engaging but could use a bit more oomph. Northam, so perfect in The Winslow Boy, is constrained by both the script and his Italian accent, while Thurman, she of the lanky frame, flawless complexion and enigmatic smile, is more convincing in her bitchy moments than in her needy ones. The film, however, is worth the price of admission if only to see the slinky Thurman decked out in a form-fitting, sequined pre-flapper-era outfit. The word "stunning" hardly does her justice.
To be fair, the film has a lot more going for it than simply Thurman's emerald-green ensemble. That it falls far short of such Merchant Ivory favorites as A Room with a View and Howards End is undeniable, but the visual splendor -- starting with the opening scene, which is played out as shadows on the wall of an ancient castle -- proves great enough to outweigh the emotional disappointments.