Merchant Ivory Productions (the name sounds like a colonial trading company with grand aspirations) has come to epitomize a very specific brand of movie: high-end literary adaptations which explore social mores and the cost of adhering to them. These are films about minutiae, the detailed exploration of individuals whose lives have been predetermined -- by race, nationality, class, gender, economics -- and therefore are allowed only a few limited decisions regarding their futures.
The triumvirate of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is drawn to stories of characters who try, despite the odds, to chart their own course and their most successful collaborations (such as the E.M. Forster adaptations, "A Room With a View" and "Howard's End") showcase the pitfalls and benefits of defying society's expectations.
"The Golden Bowl," which is based on Henry James's 1904 novel, lives up to the Merchant Ivory brand name, but doesn't exceed it. This gilded-age tale is about money, pure and simple. The complicated maneuvering of those who lack it trying to acquire a piece of the great wealth held by American billionaire Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) can't be obscured by tarting the story up as a soap opera about doomed love.
The Italian prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam) has a grand title, a massive Roman villa and a very tiny bank account. So, like his crafty countryman who didn't discover a new continent but still managed to have it named after him, Amerigo finds a way. He marries Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale), providing the nouveau riche heiress with an Old World pedigree while accessing her funds to secure his future.
Interestingly, Amerigo isn't portrayed as a ruthless mercenary. That title goes to Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman), Maggie's beloved school friend. Unbeknown to Maggie, Charlotte and Amerigo were lovers, and that flame hasn't quite burned out. So when Charlotte, who possesses manners, culture and good breeding but lacks money, marries the art-obsessed retired robber baron Adam Verver, this quartet becomes one very twisted family unit.
When you look at all the nasty undercurrents of betrayal and incest (the intense attachment between Maggie and her father is downright creepy), "The Golden Bowl" is surprisingly tame. Of the fine, undistinguished performances, it's only Thurman who displays any of the desperation and ferocity the circumstances require. It's as if the filmmakers have become too wrapped up in politeness and refuse to hold the characters responsible for their despicable actions, turning them all into victims of circumstance instead.
That's the kind of cop-out which becomes a fatal flaw, just like the hairline crack in the title's golden bowl which turns something which could be truly distinctive into a rather commonplace curiosity.