Merchant Ivory tackle Henry James’ “The Golden Bowl” for their latest period drama, and the result is a complicated, astute story wrapped up in a slightly uneven, bland film. But never mind, there’s enough good stuff here to keep us gripped for two-plus hours.
The story begins in 1903 Italy as American expat Charlotte and Italian prince Amerigo (Thurman and Northam) bring their affair to an end just as Amerigo is preparing to marry Charlotte’s best friend Maggie (Beckinsale), daughter of American billionaire industrialist Adam Verver (Nolte). As the years progress, these four characters’ lives continue to intertwine and twist with obsessions, suspicions and ambitions that never seem to run in parallel. Like the cracked golden bowl of the title, everything looks perfect, but there’s a serious flaw if you look closely enough.
Fortunately, this metaphor isn’t too heavy-handed. For all its period surfaces, the film has a seriously solid tone to it, some very well written and played sequences and a first-rate cast. Yet some of the dialog sits uneasily in their mouths (Nolte and Huston have the most trouble), with accents all over the place. It’s also, for the subject matter at hand, surprisingly tame and old fashioned at heart. The seething undercurrent should be palpable, but we never feel it, apart from one brief passionate interlude. That said, there’s so much to this film–so many sharp characters, absorbing situations, captivating themes–that you can’t just write it off. It’s just not nearly as gripping and insightful as it should have been.