Published May 01, 2001Being a Merchant/Ivory film based on a Henry James novel, you pretty much know what to expect going into "The Golden Bowl." This is another carefully art-directed period piece exploring the seething immorality and betrayals that lie beneath the surface of the English upper society of yesteryear. This time around, the story focuses on an intertwined quartet of foreigners trying to fit in with this uptight high society. To begin with, impoverished Italian aristocrat Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam) and American expatriate Charlotte (Uma Thurman) are in love but cannot marry due to their poor financial situations. Amerigo instead marries Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), daughter of American billionaire Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) and childhood friend of Charlotte. Amerigo and Charlotte keep their past relationship a secret, even after Charlotte weds the widower Adam and effectively becomes her former lover's mother-in-law.
Of course, old habits die hard and within no time the Prince and Charlotte are up to old tricks, encouraged unwittingly by their respective spouses whose father/daughter bond is so tight that it excludes their partners right into each others' arms. Oh those wacky society folks. Add to this intrigue some opulent costumes and settings, a lot of stolen glances and reproachful looks, and one heavily laboured metaphor about a golden bowl that appears perfect and beautiful but is in fact cracked and flawed (much like certain relationships and characters featured in the story, as is pointed out pointedly ad nauseum), spread it out over a generous running time that surpasses the two hour mark with ease, and you get this decidedly mediocre addition to the Merchant/Ivory canon.
The acting isn't really the problem here. Jeremy Northam is excellent as always, bringing a humanity and honesty to his character's actions, Nick Nolte gives a surprisingly subtle and mature performance, and Kate Beckinsale, although a bit weak at first, more than redeems herself in her complex portrayal of Maggie's awakening to the betrayal in her midst. The only exception is Uma Thurman, who with her desperate and unlikable performance as Charlotte makes Amerigo's choice to continue the affair seem sometimes unfathomable.
The film's major failing, besides its long, drawn out nature, is that the affair that the plot hinges on is so unsubtly played out that it really comes as no surprise that Maggie and Adam figure it out, thus removing much of the suspense integral to an effective conclusion. Also, the excuse of the too close father/daughter relationship that Charlotte and Amerigo use to justify their behaviour never rings true enough to create the necessary sympathy for the adulterers, especially as the Charlotte character becomes increasingly unpleasant throughout the film. So despite the solid performances and the pretty period setting, the film's obvious handling of the relationships and the story's underlying symbolism renders "The Golden Bowl" less than compelling.