Like the American billionaire Nick Nolte plays in The Golden Bowl who introduces Americans to the European art he has brought over from Europe, the famous producer/director duo of Merchant/Ivory introduced American moviegoers to a more digestible flavor of stuffy British literature adapted to the big screen. Beginning with The Bostonians (1984), acclaimed films like A Room With a View (1985), Howard’s End (1992), Maurice (1987) and The Remains of the Day (1993) made stories about British high society once mainly relegated to Masterpiece Theater more accessible to Americans. With his producing partner, the late Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, director James Ivory pulled off quite a difficult feat by turning mainstream audiences on to such difficult to adapt and unrelatable literary material. Merchant/Ivory, as they were popularly known in the film business, represented the gold standard in quality filmmaking and it was usually assumed a film by this team was nothing short of remarkable.

The Golden Bowl is one of the last films Merchant/Ivory made together and unfortunately and surprisingly, it turned out to be a complete wash and a pale shadow of their previous efforts. The story, based on Henry James’ 1904 novel, takes place in England and it begins with an impoverished Italian nobleman (Jeremy Northam) who marries the wealthy daughter (Kate Beckinsale) of America’s first billionaire (Nick Nolte). Before meeting Beckinsale’s character, the nobleman previously had a romantic relationship with another American (Uma Thurman), but because he needed money and Thurman didn’t have any, the nobleman went with Beckinsale. Thurman, however, turns out to be Beckinsale’s childhood best friend. Still obsessed with the nobleman, she ends up marrying Nolte (for his money of course) while still carrying on a love affair with the nobleman. The story is about adultery, marriage, and deceit against a background of Victorian attitudes that looked down upon open displays of emotion.

This is no doubt a very ambitious looking production, but for all the pedigree involved in making it, the final result is a flat, slow-paced, drudge of a soap opera that falls under its own weight. With the exception of a few actors, The Golden Bowl suffers from poor casting. I have generally enjoyed Uma Thurman, especially in her star-making turn in Pulp Fiction and in the Kill Bill movies. However, she’s never struck me as a particularly great actress. This film centers around her character, who is supposed to be conniving and ambitious. Had this been in the hands of a more formidable actress such as Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett, I believe this movie would almost be salvageable. Unfortunately, Thurman was given the role and she fails to provide the range of skill the role requires and to show the depth and complexity of the character.

Another poor choice of casting is Jeremy Northam as the Italian nobleman. This was a perplexing choice considering Northam is a British actor and I don’t see why or how an Italian actor could not be found to play the role. Given these two bad casting decisions, The Golden Bowl stumbles right out of the gate and the central relationship between Thurman and Northam is devoid of chemistry and comes off as stale and melodramatic.

The remainder of the cast generally holds up, especially Nick Nolte as the American tycoon and Angelica Huston as the gossipy, match-making aunt. However, I have seen them do much better work elsewhere and I did not get the bravura performances I expected in this movie. This may be the actors’ fault or, as I more suspect, it may be attributable to Jhabvala’s obvious struggle to translate the book to the screen.

Speaking of screenplay, the most difficult task of translating 19th and early 20th century British novels to the screen is capturing the nuances and unsaid feelings and thoughts of the characters. This was a society that looked down upon the overt expression of feelings, which left the reader to interpret the body actions and surface language of the characters. Trying to show this on screen requires a deft eye for detail and symbolism as well as actors of considerable talent (example: Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in Howard’s End). I fully expected Jhabvala to have successfully translated The Golden Bowl to the big screen as she has done this before with equally difficult material in A Room with a View and The Remains of the Day.

The one aspect of The Golden Bowl that impressed above anything else was the beautiful production design. Setting a film in grand English estates is always a good way to get brownie points by a filmmaker and I’m sure no other filmmaker is more welcome to shoot films at such locations than James Ivory. Although it may look it, The Golden Bowl is not a big budget film and majority of the budget seems to have been spent on the British locations (as can be surmised by the use of stock footage to depict the United States at the turn of the century). A negative consequence of having such grand settings in this particular movie is that the characters and their interactions come off as distant, cold, and unemotional. You get the unlikely outcome of having the production design overshadow the poor performances and weak script. By the end of the film, you remember the sets mostly and not the substantive parts of the film.

The Golden Bowl is an unfortunate mess. Its a stain on an otherwise perfect track record for Merchant Ivory (I guess its just Ivory now that Merchant is gone). I’m sure I would enjoy the novel and get more out of it than watching its poorly executed adaptation. Its an over 2 hour movie and nothing is worse than having to sit through a bad movie for that long. If you have never seen any of Merchant Ivory’s productions, do yourself a favor and see A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and The Remains of the Day.

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