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With: Uma Thurman, Kate Beckinsale, Nick Nolte, Jeremy Northam, Anjelica Huston, James Fox, Madeleine Potter, Nicholas Day, Peter Eyre, Nickolas Grace, Robin Hart
Written by: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on a novel by Henry James
Directed by: James Ivory
MPAA Rating: R for a sex scene
Running Time: 131
Date: 05/14/2000

The Golden Bowl (2001)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Golden' Bore

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's easy to make a case for The Golden Bowl being more valuable than, say, One Night at McCool's or Driven. But in my eyes it does more damage than any of that easily forgotten fluff. If we are to make any advances in the art of cinema, we're going to have to leave producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory far behind.

The Golden Bowl is the latest of the 20-odd films in Merchant-Ivory's canon, all based on respected literary sources. It's based, of course, on a 1904 novel by Henry James, whose work has inspired other tidy, respectable recent films like Washington Square and The Wings of the Dove (both 1997). The Golden Bowl spins the tale of a father (Nick Nolte) his daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale) who share a close bond. When Maggie marries a poor prince (Jeremy Northam), the prince's true love Charlotte (Uma Thurman) becomes distraught and marries the widower father to be close to her man. The two begin an illicit affair, but the meddling of a snooty matriarch (Anjelica Huston) brings them back to reality.

Merchant and Ivory and their longtime screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala present this material in a competent and straightforward way. They can't help but do at least that much with four collective decades of moviemaking experience under their belts. But they do everything halfway and medium-sized, rather than evoking mammoth visions of the fate of man or the minute, nearly imperceptible changes on a person's face. When Uma Thurman (who gives a wonderful performance, by the way) fights to keep her exterior in check as her emotions are running wild, the camera stays a discreet middle distance from her, cutting away before things get too intense.

Even the so-called nuances in The Golden Bowl are painted in medium-sized strokes. The title object, a golden bowl meant as a gift first for Maggie, then for her father, has a crack in it, and we're supposed to read all the significance of that crack into the story, even though it's pretty obvious. The movie opens with a flashback, the prince telling Charlotte about his ancestors; a woman caught sleeping with her husband's son. Of course the lovers are in bed fully clothed, so as not to offend anyone in the audience -- another example of the filmmakers going only halfway -- and this will function as another rather obvious metaphor.

To this end, The Golden Bowl serves only to provide jobs for talented set builders and costume designers. None of the characters ever seems to have anything to do but sit around in huge, decadent homes, dressed to the nines in vintage tuxedos and flowing dresses, while they cry and scream and say witty things. It's hard to see these people as anything but dusty relics rather than living creatures. In the end, I suspect that the Merchant-Ivory team has no intention, or indeed even an idea, of cinema as an art form. I'm afraid that they intend their movies to be nothing more than supplements to the written material, or, even worse, replacements. Yet critics and audiences will no doubt mistake The Golden Bowl for great art. Great art goes all the way to the edge, threatens you, rattles you, makes you gasp. The Golden Bowl just makes you yawn.

Best Buy Co, Inc.