For decades, the producing-directing team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory has been denigrated for plush and cautious "Masterpiece Theatre" moviemaking. After comparing their production of Henry James' "The Golden Bowl" to the 1972 BBC production that appeared on "Masterpiece Theatre," I consider any such comparison an insult - to "Masterpiece Theatre."
The Merchant-Ivory "Golden Bowl" takes a literary milestone of ambiguity and makes everything about it blisteringly obvious. The "Masterpiece Theatre" version, written by Jack Pulman - the same adapting genius who dramatized "I, Claudius" for the BBC - slyly and wisely pulls you into a tissue of evasion, half-truth and elegant prevarication. (It's now available in a three-tape box, by the way.)
The movie is nothing more than a brutal summary of the late James masterwork. We see an impoverished Italian nobleman named Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam) and a poor yet cultivated American named Charlotte (Uma Thurman) - once romantically attached - marry, respectively, Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale), the daughter of an American millionaire, and Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), the magnate himself.
Adam and Maggie have an unusually close father/daughter relationship, which continues after first Maggie and then Adam marry; Prince Amerigo and Charlotte, shut out from their mates' deepest affections, eventually fall into each other's arms again.
But all this happens in James, and in the BBC version, with the rhythmic subtlety of a psychological dance. The characters who know each other well sense what they share without talking about it. The ones who don't dither around the potential scandal. James' fiction charts the subtle shifts in power between the worldly Charlotte and the daddy's girl Maggie. But it ultimately gets at something more elusive and intriguing. The story turns on the way white lies can be choreographed so that everyone wins a measure of beauty, dignity and, perhaps, redemption.
The golden bowl of the title, cut from a single crystal before being set in gold - and perfect except for a single crack - is the symbol of the two couples' old arrangement. But the movie makes the symbol achingly banal, with Maggie telling Amerigo that she wants "the happiness without a hole in it, the bowl without a crack."
As a narrator, the BBC's Pulman used a minor character, Bob Assingham. "Colonel Bob" is a frank but affable ex-soldier and, more importantly, the husband of the woman who introduces the Prince to Maggie and sets the whole round of lovemaking in motion. Played by Cyril Cusack, he was a fabulous if modest puzzle-master, worrying his way through the few known facts, letting the glittering enigma of the Ververs' twin marriages grow in our imaginations.
Another sterling actor, James Fox, plays Bob in the movie, with Anjelica Huston as his wife. But he's no longer understated, and neither is the narrative. When he attends a costume ball where Amerigo links up with Charlotte, Bob dresses like a medieval executioner. When Amerigo and Charlotte meet illicitly in a wax museum, they first talk in front of a similar axe-wielding reaper, and as they move through the museum the faces of two wax figures turn to follow them. (Don't get me started on the film's recurring references to one of Amerigo's ancestors: a young man who slept with his stepmother.)
Merchant, Ivory and their screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, must take pride in telling the story without any voice-over. But what they resort to is far clunkier: a series of voice-afters. With the help of portentous title cards, they jump ahead in months or years, then have one character fill in another on what has happened or is about to happen. This method is more than awkward: It's ruinous. The novel depends on men and women moving almost imperceptibly - and at times involuntarily - closer to or apart from each other. The movie makes their every motion seem like an act of will. They become plotters rather than characters.
Beckinsale's girlish spontaneity stands out from the doldrums, and Nolte imbues Adam with impressive gravity. But Northam's Amerigo is a lump - he belongs in that wax museum - and Thurman, lovely though she is, shades Charlotte toward conscious villainy. This production is even worse than the Merchant-Ivory versions of "The Europeans" and "The Bostonians." They don't get James at all. At this point, they're not merely pedestrian moviemakers. They're also indifferent readers.
'The Golden Bowl'
Starring Kate Beckinsale, Uma Thurman, Jeremy Northam, Nick Nolte
Directed by James Ivory
Rated R, for one sex scene
Released by Lion's Gate
Running time 130 minutes
Sun score *