One of the more proficient duos of the cinematic world, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory are certainly consistent in their filmmaking efforts. From "Howard End" to "The Remains of the Day" and "Surviving Picasso" to "A Room With a View," their films are usually period pieces that feature elaborate period costumes (thus the term "costume drama"), lush production design and talented casts. They also often exude a certain staid stuffiness and occasionally are, or at least feel a bit too slow and/or long.
Their latest such effort, "The Golden Bowl," clearly fits that descriptive bill. Working from screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's ("The Remains of the Day," "Howards End") adaptation of the novel of the same name by Henry James (whose works "Washington Square" and "The Wings of the Dove" were also turned into films), director Ivory has fashioned another glorious looking production filled with exemplary work on both sides of the camera.
The tale of former lovers who marry members of the same family for money - she to the father and he to the man's daughter - but can't keep their thoughts or hands off each other obviously has the trappings for either a ribald comedy or a drama of melodramatic and possibly even tragic proportions. Although the former wouldn't fit in with the normal Merchant/Ivory style, the comedic approach may have proved to be more entertaining than the resulting slow drama.
While such a setup of interwoven love and betrayal obviously has a great deal of potential, the way in which the story has been conceived and carried out results in a film that's only moderately intriguing or engaging and certainly doesn't feel as if there's enough material present to sustain or warrant its 130 or so minute runtime.
Like many other romantically or sexually charged costume dramas such as the recent "The House of Mirth," part of the "fun" here should be watching the characters trying to remain proper and civil in front of others while steaming and bubbling up with passion, jealousy and anger just below the surface. Although that's present to certain degrees throughout the film - the jealous wife tiptoes around the subject rather than screaming and yelling at her unfaithful husband as might occur in a similar film set in more contemporary times - it never reaches the level where we fear or anxiously await the arrival of the boiling and/or eruption point.
Another problem is that much of the film's dialogue is too obvious or "on the nose." Not being familiar with James' original work, I can't say whether that was an inherent problem or one that's a result of Jhabvala's adaptation. In either case, such dialogue - while veiled in period prose - is a bit too obvious and literal in its symbolic intent.
That includes material related to the title prop, an expensive and presumably perfect gift that turns out to be flawed and comes back to haunt various parties. Jhabvala's plot also takes a while to kick in, haphazardly traveling through time and various locales before finally settling down to tell its story. It's not a serious flaw, but is one that prevents the film from feeling as tight and cohesive throughout like it should have.
Beyond its terrific, but certainly not unexpected, top-notch production values, the film benefits from the presence of its talented cast. Although some of the characters aren't quite as fleshed or thought out as one might like to avail the story, the performances are nevertheless uniformly solid. Uma Thurman ("Sweet and Lowdown," "Gattaca") and Jeremy Northam ("An Ideal Husband," "The Winslow Boy") are good as the former lovers who suddenly find themselves in something of an incestuous relationship (she's now his step-mother-in-law), even if the chemistry between them isn't quite as palatably steamy as one might expect and his Italian accent may sound forced to some.
Kate Beckinsale ("Pearl Harbor," "The Last Days of Disco") delivers a strong performance as the jilted wife who must maintain her composure, while Anjelica Huston ("Agnes Brown," "The Grifters") is good if underused as an aunt who feels guilty for arranging Amerigo and Maggie's marriage knowing full well about his past with Charlotte.
The film's best performance, however, comes from Nick Nolte ("Affliction," "The Prince of Tides") as the wealthy American expatriate who must contend with his desire to move back to the States along with his cheating wife and emotionally hurt daughter. While the actor's normal gruff and decidedly American voice sounds out of place at first - at least until we soon realize he's playing an American - he delivers an impressive performance in the film's best written role.
Although aficionados of art house pictures will probably eat up what's offered here, there isn't enough substance or story - despite the interwoven setup and potential - to compensate for the long and slow feeling running time and/or persuade mainstream viewers to see this effort. Decent and gorgeous to behold, but not quite as good as the usual Merchant/Ivory fair, "The Golden Bowl" rates as a 6 out of 10.