With the release of the new Ismail Merchant and James Ivory adaptation of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, it bears repeating that their movies have long borne the criticism, at times unfair, of being Masterpiece Theatre-ish. (The Remains of the Day, for one, is far better than that.) Their films represent not only a body of work but a body of opinion about what movies should be: decorous, literate, preferably derived from the classics. As producers and directors, Merchant-Ivory remain the leading practitioners of what used to be every studio chief’s stock-in-trade, the prestige picture that wears its breeding on its sleeve and earns its creators awards and honorary degrees.
This type of movie fell out of fashion in the counterculture era and has never entirely regained its cachet. Rightly or wrongly – and I am of both minds on the subject – there is something vaguely suspect about the Merchant-Ivory school of filmmaking. Too often the quality of the films is confused with the quality of their source material, as if a movie based on Henry James or E. M. Forster already had a leg up on greatness. But audiences, particularly those who have moved beyond the models of artistic excellence inculcated in high-school honors English class and on PBS, aren’t so quick to be wowed by such a preening prestigiousness anymore; the model for what constitutes a great film has become more flexible, more keyed to popular culture than to high culture. (Popular culture has never been more debased, but that’s another story.)
This is not to say that the old tradition of high-brow, classic-based filmmaking is always just a ruse to reap honors. Filmmakers of a certain stripe have always tried to do justice, even partial justice, to the great literature they love. You can accuse Merchant-Ivory of flaunting their refinements, but nowhere in even their most waxen films do I detect a cold and cynical calculation. They genuinely believe they can animate these great books into great movies. It’s a forgivable delusion given credence by the fact that, once in a very long while, a literary masterpiece actually does become a film masterpiece (David Lean’s Great Expectations, for example). But that is the great exception. One can pretend to judge the quality of Merchant-Ivory’s The Golden Bowl without recourse to the Henry James novel, and perhaps that would be the decent thing to do; but if such a movie is meant to share in the reflected glory of its source, then surely it’s fair to go back to the source.
With The Golden Bowl, Merchant-Ivory, along with their longtime screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, are tackling the James text that is his most maddeningly and illustriously indrawn. (Published in 1904, it was his last completed novel.) Its human interplay is ground into such a fine psychological powder that we appear to be in the presence of a race of people, or at least of an author, whose sensibility for shifts of mood and thought and strategy is so subtle and rarefied as to sometimes seem beyond comprehension. With its winding, maniacally mellifluous sentences stretching on for half a page, the novel is all grand abstraction and allusion. The movie brings out the drama inherent in the book by, in effect, making exterior everything in it that was interior. This represents almost a rebuke to James’s art, and yet, since the movie medium has never been very good at conveying complex inner states of being, there probably wasn’t any other way to adapt the book. But even on this explicit level, the movie doesn’t live up to its own designs.
Set in England and Italy between 1903 and 1909, the film offers up a bankrupt Italian prince, Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), his American bride, Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), Maggie’s wealthy-tycoon father, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), and Charlotte (Uma Thurman), who becomes Adam’s wife while remaining Amerigo’s lover and, tenuously, Maggie’s friend. The deepest attachment in the film is supposed to exist between Maggie and her adored father (who is introduced as “America’s first billionaire” in a rather crass attempt to link his story with our own era). That link explains why Maggie, when she sees her father’s marriage jeopardized, as well as her own, snaps into action. But Kate Beckinsale doesn’t express the blooming connivance of this prim woman, nor does Uma Thurman convey the stealthy wiles of someone veiled in sweet deception. Her Charlotte is an obvious temptress, which rather coarsens the drama. We end up waiting for the inevitable catfight.
The most persuasively human character turns out to be Adam Verver, and that’s because Nick Nolte senses in this robber baron a touch of the artist – or at least a man with a genuine appreciation for art. Adam’s vast collection, which he plans to house in an American museum he is constructing, isn’t merely the spoils of war; it’s the truest representation of his ideal self, of the artiste he would like to be. When he shows Charlotte his Raphael drawings, he handles them as if they were gold leaf. Adam carries around in him a plangent sorrow that’s never really explained for us; it’s just there in his fixed, faraway looks, as if the life being played out before him were all a thing of the past. What makes Nolte so much stronger than the other performers is precisely this sense of mysteriousness and indirection, which doesn’t really correspond to the Adam Verver of the novel but certainly jibes with James’s overall method. Everyone else in the movie is all too easy to read, but Adam Verver has a lyrical opacity that comes across as one actor’s heartfelt tribute to the Master.
In Brief: There’s lots of talk in Driven, the new Sylvester Stallone racing-car extravaganza, about the need for the death-defying drivers to maintain a “quiet spot” in their lives, but how about a quiet spot for the audience? The vroom and boom of this movie is practically unrelenting, which turns out to be a good thing when the action slows down long enough for us to actually hear the dreadful dialogue. Driven is recommended only to those gentle souls who want to know what it looks like to crash into a wall at 200 mph.
The Golden Bowl
Merchant-Ivory production starring Kate Beckinsale, Jeremy Northam, Uma Thurman, and Nick Nolte.
Starring Sylvester Stallone .