"The Golden Bowl" is yet another Merchant Ivory triumph, with impeccable performances and equally flawless, grand period settings. As in previous films, the venerable team makes the past as immediate and vital as the present, summoning a vanished world in such detail and perception that it is possible to see ourselves in people and places that otherwise would seem far removed.
James Fox's Bob Assingham, an easygoing, aristocratic British colonel in this sumptuous film of the Henry James novel, is a man of few words, yet his respectful, low-key remark to his robust wife Fanny (Anjelica Huston) is perhaps the film's most telling observation. Deferring to his wife's expertise in matters of the heart, he nevertheless says in effect that an aggressive woman, no matter how beautiful, does not necessarily inspire love in a man.
The Assinghams are a handsome middle-aged couple, mainstays of London high society, and the only happily married couple on view. Fanny has been sufficiently impressed by a handsome but impoverished young Italian prince, Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), that she plays matchmaker, pairing him with the daughter, Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), of the long-widowed American tycoon-turned-art-collector Adam Verver (Nick Nolte). Verver made his fortune in coal and now wants to give back to his home city an immense Beaux Arts pile of a museum filled with art treasures he has spent years and untold sums of money gathering from all over Europe.
Amerigo and Maggie are married without Maggie knowing that her best friend, Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman), also an American, was madly in love with the prince. But he had rejected her, observing that since both were poor but well-connected they had no choice but to marry money. (Charlotte is eager to marry for love, but Amerigo has a crumbling ancestral castle in dire need of New World money.)
The unexpected upshot is that Charlotte marries Adam, with unsettling consequences. Fanny, who is also a friend of Charlotte's, senses what's going on and is alarmed that she has been instrumental in bringing Maggie possible unhappiness.
A lesser writer than James and lesser filmmakers than director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, long celebrated for their screen adaptations of literary classics, might have been content to expose the tissue of lies that soon envelop these four people as a commentary on the hypocrisy of the privileged classes. But James and the Merchant Ivory company set their sites higher, wider and deeper.
Human nature may seem immutable, but the filmmakers make strength of character and concern for the feelings of others matter as much as they do for James and his people. What bracing, splendid notions in this era of chronically thoughtless self-absorption! What's more, these four people are capable of becoming determined to try to turn the lies of their lives into truths.
Assingham's observation bears directly on Charlotte, whose reckless passion for Amerigo blinds her to the possibility that Amerigo, even if he may prove vulnerable to her formidable charms, may nonetheless truly love his wife first and foremost. Thurman blazes across the screen like a comet with the kind of ravishing yet elegant beauty celebrated in Sargent portraits, and Ivory inspires her to risk scenes of hysterical despair.
Charlotte takes Thurman to a new career level, but it also does the same for Beckinsale as the deceptively demure Maggie, who quietly asserts herself in the film's second half. Huston provides a ballast of wisdom and experience; so rich and substantial is Fanny that Huston emerges as a major presence.
Although women are the dominant force of the film, it offers splendid roles for men.
Northam evokes the image of Rudolph Valentino as an innately sensual and seductive yet essentially passive Italian charmer, a well-meaning man of principle in danger of being overwhelmed by the passion he inspires in women.
It is Nolte's Verver who gives the film its historical scope and social import. For if Maggie represents all those Gilded Age American heiresses who wound up, rarely happily, married to titled Europeans in need of replenishing their coffers with nouveau riche gold, then her father evokes all those self-made American captains of industry who developed artistic pretensions.
Adam Verver, handsome and resolute despite advancing years, recalls John D. Rockefeller in character: rapacious in business and upright in his personal life. Verver truly loves and appreciates great art and is eager to to repay his legions of laborers whose lives, he observes, are so devoid of beauty with his great museum. As shrewd and discreet a judge of human nature as he is, he never seems to consider that his workers might better appreciate improved wages and working conditions than a clutch of Old Masters.
Other key figures are Madeleine Potter as a noblewoman nonchalant and open about her young suitor (Robin Hart).