Friday, May 18, 2001

The estimable team of director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant has distilled a daunting literary landmark — Henry James last novel — with assurance, poignancy and economy. Part of the economy is handsomely reflected in production designer Andrew Sanders fine eye for evocative bargains, allowing us to luxuriate in privileged surroundings in England and Italy. Being in the same rooms and on the same grounds with the characters of “The Golden Bowl” can flatter the eye and improve the disposition.

Mrs. Jhabvala´s crisp scenario remedies the novelist´s prolix tendencies while taking minor liberties with the time frame. The book was published in 1904. The screenplay begins with an ominous, arguably misleading prologue set in Renaissance Italy before settling into a trim chronology that extends from 1903 to 1909. The streamlining enhances dramatic clarity. The actors speak the minds of characters who are cultivated, but not cultivated to the ornate fault that Jamesian prose can convey.

The filmmakers also have placed very sound bets on the principal actors: Nick Nolte as the American tycoon-turned-art-collector and connoisseur Adam Verver; Kate Beckinsale as his beloved, affectionate daughter Maggie; Jeremy Northam as Maggie´s titled spouse, Prince Amerigo; and Uma Thurman as Maggie´s treacherous school friend Charlotte Stant. A supporting quintet also is deft: Anjelica Huston and James Fox as Fanny and Bob Assingham, trusted friends of the Ververs; Madeleine Potter and Nicholas Day as a set of fun-loving aristocrats; and Peter Eyre as the Bloomsbury shopkeeper who has custody of the booby-trapped golden bowl.

Three of the leads draw effectively on temperamental affinities with vintage models. Mr. Nolte’s performance as Adam Verver is perhaps the most sympathetic portrayal of an American industrial magnate since Walter Huston played the title role in “Dodsworth” for director William Wyler in 1936.

Verver is a late-19th-century coal baron who has discovered enormously satisfying new vocations in art collecting and philanthropy. While in London, he acquires a young bride whose potential as a loose cannon is never really a mystery or irreparable threat to him.

This is Miss Thurman´s Charlotte, Maggie´s gorgeous but penniless school friend whose love affair with Prince Amerigo was terminated when a marriage was brokered between American heiress and Italian aristocrat. Mrs. Assingham is aware of all the intrigues, but they remain concealed from Maggie, underrated as too innocent to cope with harsh experiences. The concealment acquires a fresh perversity when Charlotte agrees to become the widowed Adam´s second wife. Still passionately susceptible to each other, Amerigo and Charlotte find it relatively easy to betray the unsuspecting Maggie and complacent Adam.

Maggie does become aware of the romantic bond between her husband and best friend, now her incongruous mother-in-law. The golden bowl itself — an antique crystal chalice adorned with gold leaf that becomes a symbol of the flaws that can lurk in attractive things — plays a pivotal role in this discovery. Nevertheless, fortified in part by her father´s example, Maggie finds a forgiveness that is best for everyone concerned, not just for the contrite Amerigo, who doesn´t want to sacrifice his marriage. Maggie and Adam also salvage a condescending and vain Charlotte, who must be persuaded that Adam is offering her the deal of a lifetime — even if it means returning to the America she spurns as a cultural wilderness.

Henry James possessed insights about the patrician classes of his time that are still wittily revealing a century later. Adam Verver´s “robber baron” connotations might have made him ripe for hostile caricature, but it´s an unorthodox kick to share the pleasure Mr. Nolte takes in Verver´s admirable qualities. He seems a wonderful foil to Miss Thurman´s fuming, jumpy Charlotte, who recalls Bette Davis at her most impulsive and potentially destructive, especially as the title character of “Mrs. Skeffington.”

Jeremy Northam has gone to school cleverly on Louis Jourdan, making Amerigo a comparably attractive but vulnerable figure: elegant, diffident, susceptible, melancholy a catch whose weaknesses may require special attention. Fortunately, he seems to deserve it in the estimation of Miss Beckinsale´s Maggie, who responds to adversity with more grit than James often allowed his injured or sheltered heroines.

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