Grade: D+

The Merchant-Ivory team have spent more than four decades making adaptations of high-toned literary properties, and in a few instances (though not so many as one might think), they’ve struck gold. In the case of this version of Henry James’ last completed novel, however, the shiny metal is definitely of the fools’ variety. In their hands the story of two intertwined marriages–that of American billionaire Adam Verver to his devoted daughter’s friend Charlotte Stant, and that of Maggie to Prince Amerigo, who had once been intimate with Charlotte (a secret that will eventually imperil both unions)–is reduced to a sort of cinematic Cliffs Notes; the outlines of the book are still perceptible, but the content is rendered overly explicit and unshaded by merely workmanlike writing and direction. One might damn the result with faint praise by terming it diligent but uninspired.

“The Golden Bowl,” it should be noted, is an extremely difficult work to dramatize–more so than “Washington Square” or “The Wings of the Dove,” two of the earlier novels which have recently been successfully transferred to the screen, for instance. It’s a very dense and understated work, with page after page of reflective material that takes us into the minds of the various major characters and offers elaborate analyses of their individual perspectives on things. Unless one decides to use narration to approximate the effect of such passages (itself a dangerous tack), the screenwriter has to turn a good deal of their content into dialogue, which inevitably makes things much less subtle and suggestive; the “indirection” of which James himself spoke in describing the narrative is dissipated almost completely. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has shown herself a skillful adaptor in the past, but here she’s defeated by the book’s veiled, interior style; in her hands everything has become far blunter and more obvious, lacking the richness, texture and ambiguity of the original. One result is that the analogy that James set up between the damaged golden bowl that discloses Amerigo and Charlotte’s earlier acquaintance and the imperfections within the marriage of the prince and Maggie–which works in the novel because it isn’t overemphasized–becomes so emphatic that it seems crudely melodramatic (an adjective that should never be applicable to James). The desperation which Jhabvala must have felt when confronted with her task is, in fact, revealed at the very beginning of the picture, when we’re treated to a costume-epic flashback which gives us a Renaissance-era prefiguring of the interrelationships within the Verver-Stant and Amerigo-Maggie couplings. It’s a glossy, steamy set-piece, but it doesn’t belong in this picture.

Such a superficially intelligent but woefully unimaginative adaptation probably couldn’t have been raised to the level of art by even the finest director, but Ivory’s contribution is at best mediocre. He’s decorous to a fault, apparently more interested in achieving some degree of fluidity in individual shots than in making them convincingly dramatic, and as a result the the film just glides along lazily. Perhaps this is an attempt to emulate James’ luxuriant style, but if so it fails. Nor does Ivory appear to have been of much help to his performers; this is one of those coffee-table style pictures in which the sets and costumes seem to be better directed than the actors, virtually all of whom look distinctly ill-at-ease. The best of the lot is James Fox, who does his typically wily turn as a rather thick-headed, stiff-upper-lip sort of ex-military man, not inappropriately named Assingham; the character may not be much more complicated than all the major and colonels one finds in Agatha Christie’s potboilers, but Fox at least invests him with some humor and charm. Nick Nolte, meanwhile, takes an admirable stab at Adam Verver, restraining his natural ferocity and modeling a series of fine suits and tuxedos; but despite his skill, the billionaire never seems fully realized, and his passion for art collecting is extravagantly overemphasized, rendering the Jamesian theme of America’s feeding off Europe all too obvious. Anjelica Huston is reasonably good as Mrs. Assingham, the society matron who’s deeply involved with both Maggie and Charlotte, but there’s a bit of the caricature about her. Kate Beckinsale is adequate if undistinguished as Maggie, but Jeremy Northam, fine actor as he is, is all wrong as Amerigo; he gives a fussy, mannered reading that turns the poor prince into almost a comic figure. The worst mistake, though, was in casting Uma Thurman as Charlotte. She’s strikingly beautiful, of course, but the effects she achieves are totally on the surface, and in her impersonation the elegant, reticent Mrs. Verver becomesa smoldering, scheming sexpot who wouldn’t have been out of place on “Dynasty.” The performance is totally false to James (at one point in the book Charlotte quite rightly refers to the romantic aspect of her life as passive rather than active, which is surely not the case here), and it’s pretty much fatal to the film. Gillian Anderson’s performance in Terence Davies’ “The House of Mirth” wasn’t entirely successful, either, but at least she attempted the sense of dignity and repose that her character, Lily Bart, required. Charlotte needs that sort of poise too, but Thurman doesn’t even try to achieve it.

It’s entirely possible that “The Golden Bowl” is unfilmable, as great novels often are. Whether or not that’s the case, though, it’s certain that this Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala version, though richly appointed and well-meant, is as deeply flawed as James’ titular objet d’art.