For those of us convinced we were born in the wrong century (and more than a few steps down in the social and economic pecking order), the sheer elegance of the surroundings -- ancestral manor houses, with their resplendent grounds and priceless heirlooms -- provides an opportunity to breathe in the rarefied air of privilege and beauty into which we, most assuredly, were meant to be born.
The novels of such late 19th- and early 20th-century luminaries as Henry James, E.M. Forster and Edith Wharton (the first two favorite source material for producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory) present an array of characters who harbor a similar longing for the gilded life -- in extreme cases, even a sense of entitlement to it.
In The Golden Bowl, James' last novel, Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman), an impoverished American expatriate living in England, encourages her former lover, the equally penniless Italian prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), to marry her school friend, the exceedingly wealthy American Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale), but, at the same time, to continue his long-standing affair with Charlotte. Charlotte marries Maggie's widowed father, Adam (Nick Nolte), an American billionaire who has lived devotedly with his daughter on their country estate since the death of his beloved wife many years earlier.
In marrying Amerigo, Maggie worries that she is abandoning her father. Unwilling to siphon attention away from him, she neglects her husband instead. The situation changes little when Adam, primarily to keep Maggie from worrying about him, marries Charlotte. The bond between father and daughter proves not just unbreakable, but unbendable. Amerigo and Charlotte, whose earlier relationship is unknown to the Ververs, are increasingly thrown together. It isn't difficult to predict what happens next.
There is an ambiguity at the heart of The Golden Bowl that should have worked in the story's favor but which doesn't. The question is: For whom is the audience supposed to root -- or at least feel a certain empathy for? Charlotte is treacherous and Amerigo is weak, but Adam and Maggie aren't interested in opening up their little circle.
The lack of a concrete villain is one problem. But the absence of a defined (not to be misconstrued as single) perspective from which to view the various machinations is an even greater flaw, leaving the viewer without an emotional connection to any of the personalities.
Is this Maggie's story or Amerigo's? There is no reason it can't be both, but the stories do not gain sufficient momentum to work alone or together.
The actors are less than stellar but more than adequate. Nolte is such a contemporary actor that he always seems a bit stiff in period dramas. Beckinsale, who here looks remarkably like a dark-haired Nicole Kidman, is engaging but could use a bit more oomph. Northam, so perfect in The Winslow Boy, is constrained by both the script and his Italian accent, while Thurman, she of the lanky frame, flawless complexion and enigmatic smile, is more convincing in her bitchy moments than in her needy ones and is frequently reduced to silly bursts of laughter, as if not quite sure how to handle a scene. The film, however, is worth the price of admission if only to see the slinky Thurman decked out in a form-fitting, sequined, pre-flapper-era outfit. The word "stunning" hardly does her justice.
To be fair, the film has a lot more going for it than simply Thurman's emerald-green ensemble. That it falls far short of such Merchant/Ivory favorites as A Room With a View and Howards End is undeniable, but the visual splendor proves great enough to outweigh the emotional disappointments.