Saturday, February 7, 2015

"THE GOLDEN BOWL" (2000) Review

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"THE GOLDEN BOWL" (2000) Review

I have never read any of Henry James' literary works. Never. However, I have seen a few adaptations of his works. Some of them had been adapted by the production team of Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory. Aside from E.M. Forster, they must have been diehard fans of James. They had produced three adaptations of James' novels, including the 2000 film, "THE GOLDEN BOWL"

Based upon James' 1904 novel, "THE GOLDEN BOWL" is a character study of an adulterous affair between an impoverished Italian prince named Amerigo and Charlotte Stant, an equally impoverished American young woman. The movie explores their affair and its impact upon their lives and the lives of their spouses - a father-and-daughter pair named Adam and Maggie Verver. The movie begins with Amerigo's recent engagement to Maggie in London, July 1903. Amerigo and Charlotte, who were past lovers, visit A.R. Jarvis' antique store in order for Charlotte to purchase a wedding gift for Maggie, who is an old school friend. Jarvis shows them an ancient bowl, carved from a single piece of crystal and embroidered with gold, he asserts is flawless. Charlotte is indecisive about buying it, and Jarvis offers to set it aside until she can make up her mind. Although Maggie's aunt, Mrs. Fanny Assingham, is well aware of Amerigo and Charlotte's past relationship, she suggests to Maggie that Charlotte would make the perfect second wife for Adam Verver some two years later. Concerned about her father's possible loneliness, Maggie supports Fanny's idea and eventually, Charlotte becomes her stepmother. Due to their irritation over the unusually close relationship between Maggie and Adam, Charlotte and Amerigo rekindle their affair at a country house party three years later. Although Fanny and her husband Bob Assingham become aware of the affair, they decide to main silence in order to protect Maggie from any personal pain. However, in the end, their efforts prove to be in vain.

This adaptation of James' novel was not as well received as the 1972 BBC miniseries. Many critics claimed that the movie was not only inferior to the television production, but not as faithful to James' novel. As I have stated in other reviews, complete faithfulness to a literary source is not needed for a successful film, television or stage adaptation. If the changes help a particular production, then I will have no problems with said changes. The problem with "THE GOLDEN BOWL" is that I have never read James' novel. So, I cannot decide whether any changes made by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala either improved or worsened James' novel. How do I feel about the movie? Well . . . I rather liked it. Most of it. The older I get, the more I find it difficult to view adultery in fiction with any single-minded disapproval. I have to give credit to Jhabvala for portraying Charlotte and Amerigo's affair with a good deal of maturity and complexity. Jhabvala made sure that audiences understood the couple's passion for each other . . . well, Charlotte's passion. The screenplay also conveyed the couple's irritation with the Ververs' close relationship and tendency to spend more time with each other, instead of their respective spouses. On the other hand, Jhabvala's screenplay does not hesitate to express the negative aspects of the couple's adultery - especially their careless behavior later in the story and the pain it causes Maggie when she becomes aware of it.

"THE GOLDEN BOWL" is a very beautiful looking film. I cannot deny this. The movie was filmed in both England and Italy. Tony Pierce-Roberts made good use of the locations, thanks to his sharp and colorful photography. But despite the movie's lush color, I did not walk away feeling dazzled by his work. I believe my feelings stem from Pierce-Roberts' limited use of exterior shots. On the other hand, I felt very impressed by Andrew Sanders' production designs, which ably re-created the upper-class worlds of Edwardian Britain and Italy. He was able to achieve this effect with the help of Lucy Richardson's art direction and Anna Pinnock's set decorations. However, it was John Bright's costume designs that really blew me away:

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And yet . . . there are aspects of "THE GOLDEN BOWL" that either did not appeal to me or rubbed me the wrong way. These negative feelings regarding the movie did not pop up until its last 20 to 30 minutes. In the movie, director James Ivory included brief scenes of a turn-of-the-century American city as a visual symbol of the Ververs' hometown, "American City". These brief scenes were also used to reflect Charlotte's distaste for the United States and her fear of returning there. The problem is that I found these scenes very unnecessary and a rather heavy-handed literary device for American living during that period. The look on Uma Thurman's face whenever someone mentioned the idea of her character returning to States seemed enough to me. 

My real problem with "THE GOLDEN BOWL" is the strong hint of misogyny that seemed to mark the consequences that both Amerigo and Charlotte faced for their infidelity. It was bad enough that Fanny Assingham dumped most of the blame for the affair on Charlotte's shoulders. But apparently, so did Henry James. In the end, Amerigo failed to suffer any consequences for his faithlessness. On the other hand, Charlotte did. She not only lost Amerigo, but Maggie convinced her husband (and Maggie's father) to return to the United States to build his museum, taking Charlotte along, as well. One could say that Amerigo and Charlotte's fates were the result of Maggie's selfish desire to keep her husband. But when Amerigo failed to inform Charlotte that they had been found out and expressed contempt toward her failure to realize that Maggie knew about their affair, I became completely disgusted. Some claim that the latter never happened in James' novel. Actually, it did. And I can never forgive James' for his hypocrisy and obvious sexism. This struck me as a clear case of society blaming the woman for an adulterous affair.

"THE GOLDEN BOWL" featured some pretty solid performances and a few that really impressed me. Madeline Potter (an old Merchant-Ivory veteran), Peter Eyre, and Nicholas Day all gave solid performances. Although I would not regard their portrayals of the Assinghams as among their best, both Anjelica Huston and James Fox gave entertaining performances as the pair who seemed aware of the adulterous affair in this story. The chemistry between them struck me as surprisingly effective. Jeremy Northam gave a smooth and complex portrayal of the Italian prince torn between two American women. And I felt relief that his Italian accent - even if not genuine - did not bordered on the extreme. Kate Beckinsale's handling of an American accent struck me as a little more genuine . . . but just a little. Her performance for most of the film seemed pretty solid. But once her character became aware of the affair, Beckinsale's performance became more nuanced and skillful. Uma Thurman was excellent as the passionate, yet shallow Charlotte Stant Verver. Her Charlotte could have easily dissolved into a one-dimensional villainess. But thanks to Thurman's performance, I saw a passionate woman, whose flaws proved to be her undoing. However, I believe that Nick Nolte gave the best performance in the film as Charlotte's husband and Maggie's father, Adam Verver. Superficially, Nolte portrayed the millionaire as a soft-spoken, yet friendly man with a knack of making people feel at home. But there were times - especially in the movie's second half - in which Nolte kept audiences guessing on whether or not his character knew about the affair between Charlotte and Amerigo.

I would not regard "THE GOLDEN BOWL" as one of my favorite Ismail Merchant-James Ivory productions. But unlike some others, I certainly do not regard it as their worst. My one major complaint about the film was the ending of the Amerigo-Charlotte affair, which seemed to smack of sexism. And frankly, I blame Henry James. However, thanks to a first-rate cast, lush visuals and decent direction by Ivory, I thought it was a pretty decent and interesting film.

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