"The Golden Bowl"
Taking itself very seriously, as most Ivory-Merchant films do, especially one adapted from the writings of Henry James, the story is one more about the rich amidst their trappings of great wealth. But "trappings" is not just virtual castles and glorious finery. It has a lot to do with the sort of intrigues and ambitions it attracts and generates.
Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman) and Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale) have been best friends since childhood. But, they ain't chillun no more. Maggie, who, as the daughter of industrial giant Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) is lavishly wealthy and is about to be married to none less than handsome, thoughtful, Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam). She does not suspect that he's been involved previously with Charlotte. And Charlotte, a virtual pauper compared to her friend, is not about to let go of a love that is exceeded only by her obsessive need for Amerigo's attentions.
Much turns on his equivocation over which woman he will gravitate toward, and, in the process, the story turns give us a full taste of the forbidden fruit of lust. But, as Amerigo feels his impending fortune slip away, his impulses are again harnessed and he reverts to his adoring fiance just in time to prevent a personal disaster.
The simple and so far unsuspecting Maggie meanwhile, causes Charlotte to be left alone with her father and the two find that they share a certain similarity of interests and level of intelligence. As the older man becomes convinced of his need for a companion other than his daughter and as he becomes seriously attracted toward her, Charlotte sees the possibilities of a bond with Verver as a means to maintain continuing contact with Amerigo. Charlotte marries Verver and becomes her trusting friend's stepmother. One nice big happy family. Not.
It's hardly "happily ever after" as this illicit entanglement trips them all up. And, eventually, when naive Maggie finally realizes what's been going on, the questions of loyalty and betrayal grow dense and the subject of so close a relationship between a father and daughter is explored.
Nolte plays the super-rich Verver with his growing ponderousness and trademark self-importance. His take on this character, coming as it does from the pens of Henry James and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Ivory Merchant's inhouse scribe) is that this man who can buy whole streets of an American city for his museum, is posing his way through life. An actor who repeatedly takes roles not suited to his natural understanding or style, he doesn't invest Verver with believable humanity and is simply the wrong man for the job.
Kate Beckinsale is fine as the daughter and Thurman, who might not be the stunning sex vixen of "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988) is believably threatening to the stability of the household.
And what a household it is. The sets and art direction leave no doubt about the enormity of wealth we're dealing with, as do the costumes. All is bathed in luxurious light and color by cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts ("The Remains of the Day", "Howard's End") for producers whose work consistently exhibits the highest levels of technical achievement.
But, for all that, another characteristic of the Merchant Ivory playbook insinuates itself into this outing to rob it of its fullest possibilities. It's the length of the movie and the effect it has on pacing and repetition. Merchant Ivory's fine work would be even finer under the discipline of a properly tight time frame. This story's effectiveness is diminished under the weight of the 134 minutes that made it feel fatiguing.
Rated O for Over-sufficient.