Golden Bowl, The

The Golden Bowl (12)

LOVE, deceit and the rigid mores of Edwardian England are powerfully and memorably played out in this striking adaptation of the Henry James novel by the Merchant-Ivory team.

Not since The Remains of the Day have director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala delivered so fully, making the most of a powerhouse cast which includes Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman and Jeremy Northam alongside familiar faces such as Anjelica Huston and James Fox.

Set in England and Italy between 1903 and 1909, The Golden Bowl chronicles the twists and turns within two aristocratic marriages: tycoon Adam Verver (Nolte) and Charlotte Stant (Thurman), and the Italian nobleman Prince Amerigo (Northam) and Verver’s daughter, Maggie (a stand-out performance from Kate Beckinsale).

Yet deceit and betrayal run like a open vein through both couples’ lives. The Prince and Charlotte were lovers; he gave up his love for marriage, but she is unable to let go so easily.

Her marriage to Verver, therefore, allows her to be close to Amerigo without either of their spouses suspecting. As the years wear on, so their almost incestuous relationship continues.

This is the age-old tale of infidelity, duplicity and hidden, forbidden passions played out on a giant canvas – that of a dying aristocratic Europe about to be shattered by the titanic conflict of The Great War.

It is sumptuous in its beauty, awesome in the power of its performances, and stunning in its technical achievements.

Principally, there is a treasure trove of ensemble acting here – a quintet of sterling performances from five very different actors, each firing on all cylinders.

Northam and Thurman sizzle away as the secret lovers (he scoring particularly highly with a faultless accent) while Beckinsale, rapidly emerging as one of our very best young actresses, slowly but inexorably comes to suspect the truth about their cloying closeness.

Nolte, long regarded as the gravel-voiced epitome of American manhood, here sheds his tough guy persona to play a bookish philanthropist. He is barely recognisable in granny glasses, grey hair and goatee beard. He looks every inch the bonafide American theatre star who dabbles in film – except, of course, that he isn’t.

He is quite excellent as quiet, noble and dignified Verver, providing unobtrusive support as he is cuckolded under his nose by his own son-in-law.

This is as fine a modern literary adaptation for the screen as there has been. It rivals Iain Softley’s version of The Wings of the Dove (which, like The Golden Bowl, relies heavily on English thesps with a smattering of Americans) but possesses a distinctly softer edge.

Ivory, Merchant and Jhabvala have a massive hit on their hands – a considered, haunting tale of mistrust and lost love which, through disciplined direction and a superlative script, remains as pertinent today as when James first created it.

If there is a fault, it is in the film’s 135-minute running time, a sure sign that self-indulgence still exists within the Merchant-Ivory triumvirate, but it is one which may be forgiven in a film which is just so enriching.

See it to witness the end of a golden, halcyon period – a time of innocence in which one world staggers to an end and another climbs, uncertainly, to its infant feet – as discovery and recrimination within two marriages mirrors the gradual disintegration of the wider world around them.

All of it can be witnessed in The Golden Bowl.

Fabulous stuff.

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