The Ismail Merchant/JamesIvory/Ruth Jhabvala (henceforth, MIJ–producer, director, screenplay writer) 2000 adaptation of Henry James’s late and forbidding masterpiece The Golden Bowl in general and Uma Thurman’s single-minded Charlotte Stant in particular received generally tepid reviews. It seems to be taken for granted that their films will have superlative set and costume design, and this film looks exceptionally burnished even when compared to other MIJ adaptations of novels by Henry James or E. M. Forster (prime credit here for the look must go to cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts along with set decorator Anna Pinnock and costume designer John Bright).
The MIJ team was usually able to recruit good actors. A particular stand-out here in Anjelica Huston as the high society matchmaker Fanny Assingham (contentedly married to James Fox, a colonel with the sense to defer to her). After his disastrous turn in the title role of the MIJ debacle “Jefferson in Paris,” Nick Nolte managed to play convincingly “America’s first billionaire” who has turned his attention primarily to building and filling a European art museum back in American City, where he made his fortune (in gasworks). Adam Verver is rather diffident a robber baron, not to mention rather diffident for a Nick Nolte role. Besides his growing art collection and about-to-be-built museum, Verver dotes on his daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale) and the grandson she has produced with the impoverished Italian princeling Amerigo (Jeremy Northam) with whom she is madly in love.
As Fanny knows, but Maggie does not, Maggie’s school friend Charlotte (Uma Thurman) was passionately in love with the prince in Italy before Fanny made the match. Like Prince Amerigo, Charlotte needs to marry money to sustain a grand lifestyle, although she does not have a castle in need of substantial repairs, as he does. Who has more money than the long-widowed Adam Verver? Marrying him not only secures an economic foundation for Charlotte, but regularly throws her into the company of the prince, since Adam and Maggie are accustomed to prolonged tête-à-têtes. Although reluctant beyond his concerns about jeopardizing his own economic security, she seduces the prince and is less than circumspect an adulteress.
It is the shopkeeper who has the gilded Byzantine crystal bowl of the title who confirms Maggie’s suspicions about the relationship between her husband and her best friend who is now her mother-in-law. With typical irony, the “smoking gun” is not what it seems, but what is interesting in our era of divorce as a first recourse is that Maggie is more concerned about keeping her father from finding out than she is in recriminations to her husband. Probably it helps that he is more and more in love with his wife and feels his mistress increasingly heavy a burden. Maggie even sets out to let Charlotte feel superior and in control.
It seems that Maggie underestimates her father’s perceptiveness about her feelings, but he, too, works to maintain some self-importance in his wayward wife. He seems not so oblivious a lamb as Charlotte imagined, though what he knows he keeps to himself, making enigmatic statements that can be interpreted in multiple ways.
So much delicacy of feeling, especially concern for those of a vicious manipulator as Charlotte, is very alien to 21st-century American culture, and (like much in Henry James) can seem overelaborate and maddeningly indirect. As a later famous novel about the early 20th century begins, “The past is a different country; they do things differently there.” Falling in love with one’s wife seems exotic, though I suspect it continues to happen on occasion. What does strike me as exotic is the determination of the male leads (Adam and the prince) to turn the lies of their marriage into truths, especially that of Maggie and Amerigo. Adam may be forcing Charlotte to leave England, but he is going to make her a very big fish (killer whale?) in the smaller pond of American City.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay may be too indirect, too Jamesian for many viewers. I think that it could be tighter, but it is a lot tighter than late Henry James novels’ convoluted plots or prose.
And the Uma Thurman question: is she effective in her part as Charlotte? She certainly looks like a John Singer Sargent painting but is not as demure as one imagines his sitters to have been. Her passion for Prince Amerigo is doomed from the start and all her maneuvering only drives him further out of a love that may never have been very fervent. Charlotte becomes increasingly desperate–visibly desperate. I think that it is Charlotte’s style not Uma Thurman’s that clashes with that of the others. I don’t think that her part is written to make her a champion of truth against hypocrisy, since she is the most duplicitous character of any of those on view herein. That Maggie feels sorry for her is a tribute to Maggie’s generosity of spirit. My conclusion is that Uma Thurman’s job was to make the choice of Maggie seem not just right but obvious, and that she did this job well.
The characters, their privileged surroundings, the slow and indirect exposition of who knows what, who suspects what will not appeal to many, but I think that the MIJ adaptation of The Golden Bowl is an achievement, though less of one than Iain Softley’s (1997) “Wings of the Dove” or William Wyler’s 1949 “The Heiress” from the more easily adapted (because shorter and more straightforward) Washington Square).