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'BOWL' ORNAMENTAL BUT EMPTY OF LIFE.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Critic

Lately, whenever somebody makes a period costume drama, the filmmakers typically go out of their way to assure everybody that it will steer clear of ``Merchant Ivory'' territory. Translation: It won't be dull.

So where does that leave director James Ivory and his producing partner Ismail Merchant and their latest movie, ``The Golden Bowl''? Short answer: In exactly the same place they've always been. Take it or leave it.

Merchant and Ivory clearly love telling stories about the repressed emotions of the idle rich. Of course, their enthusiasm for the subject doesn't exactly translate to much in the way of passion on the screen, simply because their subjects are too busy keeping a stiff upper lip. About the only exuberance you'll ever find in a Merchant Ivory movie comes from the rich visualizations of stately mansions and frilly clothes.

This isn't a dismissal of Merchant Ivory. Certainly ``The Remains of the Day,'' ``A Room With a View'' and ``Howards End'' possessed considerable merit. But ``The Golden Bowl'' finds the filmmaking team plodding through familiar ground with little of the insight into character needed for their subjects to fully come alive. Fans who love their carefully composed shots and sophisticated storylines will likely be satisfied, but anyone looking for a little more understanding of the human condition will come away disappointed.

Ivory, working with longtime screenwriting collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, has adapted Henry James for the screen before with 1979's ``The Europeans'' and ``The Bostonians'' in 1984. ``The Golden Bowl'' is a trickier bit of business. It's the most complex of James' novels, full of moral ambiguity, nuance and murky motives - a great book, but a dicey one to make into a movie.

In the film's opening moments, we meet Italian aristocrat Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam, wildly miscast) giving the kiss-off to his lover Charlotte (Uma Thurman). It's not that the prince doesn't love Charlotte. It's just that - you guessed it - she doesn't have any money, and since the prince doesn't either, they can't marry. (See last year's ``The House of Mirth'' and just about every other movie set among turn-of-the-20th-century aristocracy for parallel plot lines.)

The prince marries Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), the naive daughter of a wealthy American art collector named Adam Verver (Nick Nolte). Father and daughter have an unusually close relationship, emotionally incestuous. That leaves Amerigo twiddling his thumbs, playing second fiddle to his father-in-law.

Conveniently, Maggie's old friend, Charlotte, comes back into the picture. Maggie doesn't know that her husband and Charlotte were once lovers. Charlotte, still pining for the prince, takes up with Verver. And since father and daughter spend so much time together, Charlotte and the prince have plenty of opportunities to be alone.

Amerigo calls Verver and Maggie ``two children arranging dolls at a tea party, simple and good.'' What's fascinating about James' ``The Golden Bowl'' is that the Ververs aren't that simple; in fact, they may be the victimizers, not the victims, of the story. Nolte is the most effective member of the cast in playing with the shifting textures of his character.

Unfortunately, Ivory and screenwriter Jhabvala are unable - or unwilling - to bring out the nuances of these complex relationships in any meaningful way. Their storytelling is facile and obvious, giving us a movie like the titular object - beautiful to look at, but flawed and, ultimately, useless.

``THE GOLDEN BOWL''

(Rated R: strong sex scenes)

The stars: Kate Beckinsale, Nick Nolte, Jeremy Northam, Uma Thurman.

Behind the scenes: Directed by James Ivory. Produced by Ismail Merchant. Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Released by Lions Gate Films.

Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle's Town Center 5 in Encino; Laemmle's Playhouse 7 in Pasadena; Laemmle's Monica in Santa Monica; Landmark's Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills .

Our rating: Two and one half stars

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

Kate Beckinsale plays an ingenue who has an especially close relationship with her father in ``The Golden Bowl.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Apr 27, 2001
Words:660
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