Film Scouts on the Riviera 2000

"The Golden Bowl"

by David Sterritt

Film Scouts on the Riviera 2000 is presented by:

Those who perenially accuse director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant of cultivating a stodgy "Masterpiece Theater" style are pointing to "The Golden Bowl" as the latest incontrovertible evidence for their position, as if the very act of adapting this particular Henry James novel weren't among the more audacious gestures to be unveiled at Cannes this year. An extraordinarily interiorized novel, it's conspicuously short on both events and dialogue, putting most of its energy into long, ruminative descriptions of the states of mind induced in a small number of characters by the situations in which they find themselves enmeshed.

The most socially and psychologically interesting of these situations is an adulterous love affair between a handsome Italian prince and an attractive Englishwoman who marries the father of the Prince's new bride as a way of shoring up her future and assuring her proximity to the Prince himself. In the hands of a different novelist this might have touched off the sort of "thriller" plot mechanics that Merchant finds in James's book - or so Merchant claimed during a press-luncheon chat at the Cap d'Antibes after the movie's first screening - but James uses it as the jumping-off point for one of the explorations of the nature of consciousness that preoccupied him during his later years. All of which means "The Golden Bowl" is hardly the sort of movie-ready material that more tractable James books have proved to be in the past-from "The Europeans" and "The Bostonians," both nicely filmed by Merchant Ivory, to more recent exercises like "The Portrait of a Lady" as adapted by Jane Campion and company.

Clearly aware of this project's challenging nature, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has cleverly translated the novel's interior meditations into dialogue with a distinctly archetypal ring, and Ivory has coached his interestingly chosen cast into delivering it with remarkable restraint, so that physically oriented performers like Nick Nolte and Uma Thurman conjure up constellations of paradigmatic character traits even as they provide their characters (the father and his wife, respectively) with appropriately Jamesian attitudes and demeanors. They receive admirable assistance from Jeremy Northam as the Prince and Kate Beckinsale as his wife, and from the meticulously detailed scenic and costume designs put into play by Ivory and his gifted collaborators. Tony Pierce-Roberts contributes the crystal-clear cinematography that has graced all of his Merchant Ivory movies, and my only criticism of Richard Robbins's music is that there isn't enough of it.

In short, this rigorously executed vision of "The Golden Bowl" is an intellectually rich examination of various Jamesian themes-Europe and America, wealth and poverty, the 19th century and the 20th-with the first portion of each duality brought to exquisitely precise on-screen life while the second portion lurks just below the surface much as the narrative's illicit and unquenchable passions do. The result may not be one of Merchant Ivory's greatest successes, but it's a bold and bravura achievement all the same.

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