Over the course of their 40-year collaboration, producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have earned what might be called a false reputation as boutique adapters of the world's great books. False because in their marrow, Ivory (born in Berkeley, California), Merchant (born in Bombay) and Jhabvala (born in Germany) are eccentric nomads whose true subject is exile. Their early, urbane comedies—Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Bombay Talkie (1970) and Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978)—mapped a melting India; their more recent work explores the diasporas of Henry James, E.M. Forster and Kazuo Ishiguro. The results vary from exquisite to hollow. Jefferson in Paris (1995) took a great premise—a genius of the American revolution (played by Nick Nolte) who also witnessed the French one, succumbing to a sexual obsession with a woman he legally owned—and buried its morally challenging riches under a handsome blanket of soapsuds.
At their best, Merchant-Ivory create moments of pure cinematic delight. In A Room With a View(1986), Julian Sands seduces Helena Bonham Carter by shaping the peas and potatoes on his dinner plate into a question mark. The witty blackouts in Howards End (1992) speed us through hours of otherwise deadly conversation in which Anthony Hopkins can't stop himself from confessing past sins to Emma Thompson. Their newest production, The Golden Bowl, satisfies on this level. Based on the 1904 novel by Henry James, it opens with a kinetic bit of torch-lit action as two medieval Italian adulterers are put to death, and near the close, it makes haunting use of archival footage from fin-de-sicle New York. In between, it tells of Charlotte Stant and Prince Amerigo (Uma Thurman and Jeremy Northam), two destitute lovers who terminate their affair in order to marry into the same wealthy family. The prince, a descendant of those long-ago adulterers, feels a duty to marry a rich American to advance his depleted family fortunes. The impetuous Charlotte marries well to be closer to her prince. Unfortunately, the billionaire father and daughter they've married, Adam and Maggie Verver (Nick Nolte and Kate Beckinsale), spend so much time together that Charlotte and the prince are left free to resume their affair. This would be comical if they were just as free to keep their passion a secret, but in the London-based community of exiles they inhabit, their bond is too colorful a topic for onlookers. A gossipy matron (Anjelica Huston) arouses suspicions that are mysteriously confirmed by a golden bowl that Maggie acquires by chance. Charlotte, with the prince's help, nearly bought this bowl as a present for Maggie years before, but the prince judged it to contain a hidden flaw. For Maggie, the mere fact of Charlotte and the prince colluding over a thing of beauty is irrational proof that they've been intimate behind her back.
James mined his own status as an American abroad to dramatize his prophetic views of Americans as nascent empire builders. The Merchant-Ivory team concentrates more on exile and its isolations as an arena for comprehending love. Jhabvala's screenplay distills these dynamics into compact, energetic scenes, and Ivory's locked-down directorial style (he never budges the camera except through a cut) derives its force from the confident physicality of his players. Northam wears his Italian accent with light ease, and Thurman advances the artistic breakthrough she made late last year in Vatel, rendering Charlotte's daydreamy nature and lethal innocence with mature honesty. Thurman may owe this in part to Nolte, whose sphinxlike stillness as the billionaire robber baron has just the right edge of implicit menace to heat the film's final third with a sense of looming catastrophe, as well as providing Thurman's reckless Charlotte with an opponent who mirrors her own strong will. That the bowl is emblematic of the flaw hidden in any human pairing is one meaning; that love can be affirmed, not as the fulfillment of an erotic attraction, but as a fruitful truce between parties bent on power, is another—compromise being the lie on which we build our civilization, from the marriage vows on. Seen in the bowl's metaphoric reflection, Nolte's Adam, with his patronizing wish to build a great art museum to "give something back" to the poor laborers who built his fortune, is a complex American monster—an intelligent expatriate brute envisioned with a clarity and comedic irony sufficient to redeem any number of Jeffersons in Paris.
The Golden Bowl was directed by James Ivory; written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, adapted from the novel by Henry James; produced by Ismail Merchant; and stars Uma Thurman, Jeremy Northam, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale and Anjelica Huston. Now playing at Edwards Lido, Newport Beach.
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