*The Golden Bowl (R)
Yet another adaptation of a Henry James novel, this his last and most difficult, this Merchant-Ivory adaptation of The Golden Bowlsucceeds as a glittering period piece and as a well-told morality tale exploring marital infidelity and familial fidelity. Screenwriter Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala takes James' vast novel with all its complexities and twists and turns, and turns it into a navigable tale told in an admirably economical 130 minutes.
At the center of the plot is Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), a filthy rich American robber baron stalking European estates and buying up all the art treasures his rented summer castle will hold. Verver's singular ambition is to one day take his loot to his American hometown where he will honor the working class with a museum of their own. When Verver's daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale) marries a penniless but well-bred and handsome Italian prince, Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), she is not aware that her best friend and wedding guest Charlotte (Uma Thurman) has enjoyed some intimacy with the prince in the recent past.
When Maggie and Amerigo take off for a summer in Italy, Charlotte stays behind to keep company with Adam. A few months later, they are engaged to be married and the four from there on form a tight, symmetrical extended family with Charlotte and Amerigo occasionally sneaking off for a steamy tryst or some fervent necking in a darkened hallway.
When Maggie's wifely suspicions are alerted, the film takes on a delicate balance rarely seen in a story of this type. The couples don't descend to smashing lamps or hurling insults, but quietly attempt to avoid disaster by agreeing to live on separate continents. All of this is orchestrated by Adam and Maggie who, after all, own Amerigo and Charlotte and are accustomed to getting what they pay for. That Prawer-Jhabvala's script paints father and daughter as pure innocents is my one quibble with the script. Still, the complexity of interaction among the four is taut and challenging.
Nick Nolte gives a whopping performance as the steely leonine man in control. Beckinsale's Maggie, in spite of her poodle hairdo, accumulates emotional and moral weight as the film progresses, and Northam is steadily attractive as a man resigned to the life he has chosen. Thurman looks so gorgeous in the resplendent costumes, that it's hard to pay attention to her acting, but her Charlotte, at the very least, is compelling throughout. Her breakdown scene near the end of the film is a brave stretch hinting at more potential from this actress than we've come to expect.
Naturally, the cinematography, costuming and production design all scream Academy Award nomination, and wallowing in this gilded splendor for two hours is well worth the bargain price of $3 at Silver Cinemas, formerly Super Saver. Watch out in upcoming weeks as the theater plans to bring more foreign, independent and art films to the Springs.