Henry James considered The Golden Bowl his masterpiece, the whole book reading like one single train of thought, an 800-page-long sentence in which qualifying clauses are qualified by other qualifying clauses and parentheses punctuate the landscape like telephone poles. I tend to agree with H.G. Wells, who called James "a hippopotamus rolling a pea." But what a hippopotamus! And what a pea! Perhaps no other author has so deftly sifted the shifting sands of character and motivation. (Perhaps no other author would want to.) But, as with the novels of Jane Austen, what makes James' novels such tantalizing candidates for screen adaptation are the very qualities that make screen adaptation so difficult ' the sound of the author's voice, the thoughts circling around themselves ad infinitum, though rarely tangling.
Despite the inherent difficulties, here is the Merchant/Ivory Golden Bowl, glittering like the gilded crystal of its title but with cracks you could drive a truck through. It's not really fair to hold a movie up to the novel it's based on, I suppose, but without the book there to fill in all those cracks, this particular movie would be quite thin and brittle, a failed attempt at Edwardian noir. The setup is the same: A widowed American billionaire (Nick Nolte) and his daughter (Kate Beckinsale) take a wife (Uma Thurman) and a husband (Jeremy Northam) who, unbeknownst to them, had a...prior engagement. If two's company and three's a crowd, four's a case of in flagrante delicto waiting to happen, especially since Nolte's Adam Verver and Beckinsale's Maggie haven't needed anyone but each other, before or after their marriages.
It's a dirty little love quadrangle further soiled by money; Adam and Maggie had it, their spouses didn't. But James wasn't interested in the quadrangle so much as in the way the four sides perceived the quadrangle ' the infinite shadings of their thoughts. For Adam and Maggie, although they might at first appear to be the injured parties, may have been treating Thurman's Charlotte and Northam's Prince Amerigo as the latest acquisitions in an art collection that Adam has made his life's mission. Why shouldn't the trophy wife diddle with the trophy husband? Europe and America, art and money, taste and virtue ' the dichotomies are there to be savored, but they're buried under such mountains of introspection that it's difficult to say exactly what the novel's about. Maybe it's just about a marriage that appeared to be golden but bears a hidden crack.
That's what the movie's about, anyway. The Merchant/Ivory team, with James Ivory behind the camera and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala at the typewriter, have done it again: sucked the life right out of a novel. Their Golden Bowl is little more than a blueprint for the movie that might have been made out of the raw material James supplied, everything indicated rather than felt, schematized rather than dramatized. As for the actors, they hardly bear mentioning, with the possible exception of Nolte, who plays period surprisingly well. Even Thurman is better than usual, although she doesn't have the faintest idea what Charlotte is about. And Anjelica Huston at least holds the screen as Fanny Assingham, the busybody who cheers and jeers from the sidelines, but why isn't this character played for laughs? Her name's Fanny Assingham, for crissakes.
Instead of the rococo curlicues of James' mind, Merchant/Ivory give us the ormolu tables, the furbelowed shades, the stuff and stuffiness of England's celebrated country houses. Of course, for those of us who can't get enough of HGTV, that's almost enough, interior decoration substituting for interior monologues. But without its production values, alas, The Golden Bowl would have little value at all. It's beautiful and dull, a trophy movie.