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Where's Emma Thompson When You Need Her?
on November 18, 2001
There must be an old saying about how people with too much money and time on their hands will find a way to misery, unhappiness and trouble before they can seek or find redemption in true love, truth and honesty. But the flawed relationships and imperfections of human nature make "The Golden Bowl," directed by James Ivory, a perfect metaphor for the lives of the four principals involved in this story, which takes place at the beginning of the 20th Century. Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam) is broke, and to restore his villa in Italy, as well as the stature of his name and lifestyle, he gives up his true love, Charlotte (Uma Thurman), to marry Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), the daughter of the first American Billionaire, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte). Charlotte then proceeds to marry Adam, and due to some eccentricities on the part of Adam and Maggie, the four become as one big, confused and dysfunctional family, playing out their drama in England and Italy, while Adam pursues his obsessive dream of building a museum in "American Town," which he feels will "give back" something to those who have worked their lives away in the coal mines wherein his fortune was made. It's a world in which the priorities of those involved, however, become twisted, and truth, fidelity and all the things that really matter, become lost or disavowed; a world in which those who seemingly have a choice opt for dreary and overcast, rather than for blue skies and sunshine.
Though the cinematography is superb and the settings lavish, the production team of Merchant/Ivory, who created and delivered such outstanding films as "Howard's End" and "Remains of the Day," come up a bit short with this offering, which fairly plods along and simply takes too long to achieve very little in the way of insight or even just a satisfying cinematic experience. And one of the main problems, perhaps, is the fact that the characters are people with whom you can neither identify nor relate, and as such, it is difficult to sympathize with their respective situations or to embrace their individual fixations. These are people you simply have trouble caring about, and without that connection it puts you at arm's length, so to speak, and watching their story unfold becomes a tedious business at best.
A valid argument could be made, as well, for the casting-- or should I say, "miscasting"-- of the film, beginning with Nolte, who not only seems out of place (even playing an American), but gives a performance that seems forced and too overtly "theatrical;" this kind of acting belongs on the stage, and even there would stretch credibility. It definitely does not translate well to film, and is simply not believable. As he has proved in many films before, most notably in 1998's "Affliction,"-- in which his performance was instrumental in enabling James Coburn to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor-- Nolte can act; but this just isn't the kind of role in which he excels. Still, he must be given credit for the attempt.
The usually charming and charismatic Beckinsale also falters in this one. Like Nolte, her performance seems forced and lacks the naturalness that would've made it at all believable. Perhaps in attempting to internalize her feelings, as one could argue would be appropriate for a young woman of the times depicted here, she may have used a bit too much restraint, which adversely affected the perception of her character and the emotions she was attempting to convey. And when she does finally externalize her feelings, it just doesn't seem honest.
Northam also fails to make his character, Amerigo, believable. A good actor, one has to wonder at the reasons behind casting him as the Italian Prince. His accent is decent, but far from impeccable, and the lapses have a tendency to take the viewer out of the story, which breaks the continuity and dispels the drama of the film. And while not disastrous, it is unfortunate, and the film suffers for it.
Uma Thurman probably comes closer than any of her co-stars at capturing the essence of her character, but even her performance comes across as rather tepid; physically and emotionally, she embodies Charlotte, but even her most flamboyant moments are lackluster. And she and Northam lack the on-screen chemistry that would've created the tension needed to make the relationship between Charlotte and Amerigo a viable, believable commodity.
The saving grace of the film, performance-wise, are those of Anjelica Huston and James Fox, in supporting roles as Fannie and Colonel Bob Assingham who, though in a limited capacity, give moments of the most credibility to the overall film.
The supporting cast includes Madeleine Potter (Lady Castledean), Nicholas Day (Lord Castledean), Peter Eyre (Jarvis, the Shopkeeper), Nickolas Grace (Lecturer) and Robin Hart (Mr. Blint). Visually resplendent, but overlong and far from engaging, "The Golden Bowl" fails to live up to the expectations of a Merchant/Ivory production. To say that the story goes nowhere would be erroneous; it's simply a long, tiresome journey with an anticlimax that is less than satisfying. A highly touted film, in the final analysis it can be chalked up as possibly the first misfire in the Merchant/Ivory canon. We can only hope that Emma Thompson will be available for their next project.