OK, it's official: The Merchant Ivory Era of filmmaking is over. Long Live Merchant Ivory!
Not only have the sumptuous costume dramas that mark the work of this particular filmmaking team (producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory) fallen out of favor with the moviegoing public, but their ability to make those kinds of movies has come into question.
Of course, it hasn't helped that they've also lapsed into a filmmaking formula, by adapting novels or creating "original" pieces about repressed feelings and doomed love affairs, which gets a little tiresome after the umpteenth rendition.
It's likely that the final nail in the Merchant Ivory coffin is their latest, a rather colorless adaptation of Henry James' "The Golden Bowl."
The source material is a difficult literary work to begin with, and, as evidenced by this adaptation, it's probably one that should have stayed on the written page.
This solemn misfire is rendered with very little passion and emotion, and aside from the handsome costuming, it gets little of the novel right especially where the casting is concerned.
That includes actress Uma Thurman, who stars as American socialite Charlotte Stant. Charlotte is deeply in love with Italian Prince Amerigo (British actor Jeremy Northam), but neither of them has the resources (a k a monetary wealth) to make such a union work.
So he instead marries Charlotte's wealthy schoolchum Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale), who helps him refurbish his crumbling family castle. But she doesn't offer much in the way of passion.
Nevertheless, Amerigo is determined to make the best of it, while the heartbroken Charlotte marries Maggie's father, the coal magnate Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), who treats her like one of his museum pieces (he comes from the "look-but-don't-touch" school).
As you might expect with this kind of material, a rekindling of old romance is inevitable, though as written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (a Merchant Ivory regular), it comes off as sort of a third-rate "Dangerous Liaisons."
There's not nearly enough humor to make it work (well, intentional humor Northam and Anjelica Huston's preposterous, affected accents may prompt some giggles).
To her credit, the usually patrician Thurman loses a little of her customary chill, but she's still not completely believable as Charlotte. And she and Northam have zero chemistry together even less than Northam and Beckinsale . . . and they're not supposed to have any.
"The Golden Bowl" is rated R for brief simulated sex, brief violence (seen in silhouette) and glimpses of nude artwork. Running time: 130 minutes.
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