I have a dream. It’s not a grand dream, like peace and harmony among all races and peoples, or even a cool dream, like one in which I can fly and become invisible. No, it’s much simpler than that. In this dream, filmmakers get together and admit that they’ve been casting certain actors for years simply because a lot of other people think those actors are crazysexyhot, and despite the complete absence from their DNA of anything resembling acting ability. And they decide together, as a matter of artistic principle, to stop wasting perfectly good roles on talentless bags of eye candy.
All right, a moment of fairness—Uma Thurman doesn’t belong in the same category with Freddie Prinze Jr., Keanu Reeves or, say, Freddie Prinze Jr. A few tolerable performances dot her résumé—The Truth About Cats & Dogs, Pulp Fiction—and her mere presence isn’t quite the cinematic equivalent of repeated hammer blows to the skull.
But watching Thurman in the adaptation of Henry James’s novel The Golden Bowl reminds you what happens when you ask an actor to chew on a meaty role when she’s only just moved from the bottle to rice cereal. Playing a character that demands a performance with depth, texture and complexity, Thurman languishes so helplessly you may want to shout possible line readings to her from your theater seat.
The role in question is Charlotte Stant, one of the many Henry James heroines whose lives are torn by conflicts between love and money. In this case, Charlotte is an American whose love affair with Italian prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam) ends when he chooses to marry another American, heiress Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale). It’s the safer social choice for Amerigo, whose own family fortune was squandered in earlier generations, but he and Charlotte remain smitten with one another. Then Charlotte accepts a marriage of social convenience of her own—to Maggie’s father Adam (Nick Nolte)—that brings her back into Amerigo’s life. And you thought you had a complicated relationship with your mother-in-law.
This is the third Henry James novel adapted by the long-time creative partnership of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (A Room With a View, The Remains of the Day), and in many ways Merchant Ivory and James make the ideal creative partnership. Even when adapted from other source material, Merchant Ivory films have often explored James’s fascination with New World individualism vs. Old World societal constraints. Indeed, the “Merchant Ivory” brand name itself has become a kind of cinematic shorthand for films with a high-brow European sensibility that still appeal to American middle-brow audiences.
In The Golden Bowl, Ivory and company do typically impressive work with the atmosphere for their story. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts still shoots sumptuous, claustrophobic interiors better than anyone in movies, and composer Richard Robbins writes another score that’s both lush and unsettling. The source material here is almost painfully heavy on lit-crit symbolism—the golden bowl of the title is perfect on the surface, but with a crack running through it, not unlike Maggie and Amerigo’s marriage, nudge nudge. But Ivory and Jhabvala generally do a fine job of steering the narrative towards the thorny interplay between the four principal characters.
And that’s where the Uma Factor blows the whole thing up. Like The Wings of the Dove, another recently filmed Henry James novel, The Golden Bowl makes its protagonists a pair of clandestine lovers who manipulate a supposed friend so they can be together. In order for the story to pack any emotional punch, it has to be more than the story of upper crust infidelity. It has to convey the pain and frustration of characters driven to unsavory acts by the status-obsessed world in which they live.
In The Wings of the Dove, in the role analogous to Charlotte, Helena Bonham Carter gave a ferocious performance as the “other woman” twisted by her thwarted desires. Thurman, conversely, plays most of her scenes in The Golden Bowl with a default expression of blithe naughtiness that never once appears to be hiding anything more wounded underneath. Nearly every word of dialogue dribbles from Thurman’s mouth as though Charlotte were simply immature and self-absorbed. Sure, she bursts into tears whenever the script calls for them, but they’re petulant tears. Thurman’s Charlotte isn’t a soul in torment. She’s a good old-fashioned home-wrecker.
Suddenly, there’s virtually nothing at stake in the film, despite all the strained conversations in which X knows Y is sleeping with Z, and Y knows that X knows, but decorum demands brittle silence et cetera et cetera. At odd intervals, there’s genuine tension in those conversations, as when Maggie attempts to poke a hole in Amerigo’s cover story for returning home late from a weekend outing. More often, there’s a gaping hole where compassion for Charlotte and Amerigo’s plight should be.
The easy knock on The Golden Bowl would be to note that, like the titular artifact, it’s gorgeous but deeply flawed. But the more accurate description is that it’s gorgeous but shallow, bereft of anything more compelling than what you see on its surface.
Not unlike Uma Thurman’s performance, come to think of it—nudge nudge.
The Golden Bowl HH (R) Directed by James Ivory. Starring Uma Thurman, Jeremy Northam and Nick Nolte.