Merchant-Ivory Cracks The Golden Bowl; Kingdom Come's Downhome Comedy

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Merchant-Ivory's film of Henry James' The Golden Bowl is irremediably cracked (the narrative is ragged, scenes play like takes during a rehearsal, its release was delayed a full year after rumors of a calamitous reception at Cannes) but somehow those misfortunes also go toward making it the duo's most interesting classical adaptation. (They couldn't do any worse than their 1984 version of James' The Bostonians.) Besides, their rictus approach to filmed literature benefits from being a little cracked. Maybe then some air can seep in, some feeling might show through.

They've found a good cast this time?not simply a roster from the Old Vic but vibrant actors playing just left of their usual course: Nick Nolte as Adam Verver, an American robber baron and collector who acquires a new young wife, Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman), who is his adult daughter's duplicitous best friend. His daughter Maggie Verver, played by Kate Beckinsale, becomes the mousy but iron-principled wife of a conniving European, Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), who has kept secret his ongoing affair with Charlotte. (Stalwarts Anjelica Huston and James Fox play sideline observers.) Imagine Gwyneth Paltrow willowing her way as Maggie and you will see that the bad luck that robbed Merchant-Ivory of that Miramax Playhouse vibe was fortuitous. The cast of this love-and-money story (set in England and Italy between 1903 and 1906) keeps a good balance of immediate appeal and hidden complexity. They divine the melodramatic core of the central quartet's moral struggles?whether spousal or filial?without violating James' formally fascinating draft of the workings of greed and jealousy. The actors cohere the story whenever producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala?ambitious middlebrows?cannot.

Maggie's troubled realization that her naivete and cloistered surroundings have given way to "suspecting, doubting, fear" is one of the most adroit moments in all Merchant-Ivory. She bears the pain of thorough betrayal (by friend, lover and class). You get the sense of an actor just catching the precise emotion?an instant of discovery?that is all the more appreciable given the lumbering, obvious scenes leading to that moment. Ivory rarely seems to know where to put Tony Pierce Roberts' camera, showing the back of actors' heads or oblique angles of a couple talking on a staircase before a Renaissance mural, often too far away to catch their reflexes. Over all The Golden Bowl's swanky bric-a-brac, the actors help audiences sense human feelings, not the usual snotty, overrefined (British) indications of feelings.

English-born Beckinsale, who proved how convincing?and devastating?an American she could be in Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, doesn't slack off into Anglophile mannerisms here. Maggie is coddled by class in a sounds-right formal expatriate way that Beckinsale harmonizes with Nolte's self-made Adam. Both daughter and father respond to infidelity with subtly played suffering, as if establishing propriety together?an earned, familial sense of pride and survival. When Adam tells his daughter, "One must bear many things for love," he is actually, movingly confiding/instructing about honor and trust. Few films about the aristocracy portray such complexity for American perception. Merchant-Ivory only learned how to do it as part of American experience in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries?just in time to approximate James' intricately detailed evocation of culture and manners.

Because there is no thematic drive in this film (as usual in Merchant-Ivory), we rely on the actors to illustrate James' psychology. Not plummy enunciation of dialogue but emotional nuance?what Merchant-Ivory very rarely achieve. In the team's past features, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala merely showed off her lit student credentials; here they are exposed as no more than a sort of Classics Illustrated reduction of plot. Even the so-called assurance of their most acclaimed movie Howards End was humbug. That film's less-stodgy style still gave no sense of the story's existential meaning?the spiritual Englishness that was E.M. Forster's subject. Merchant-Ivory primarily sell moviegoers tone but they're like antique dealers who forget to dust.

Despite the jumbled mess they make of The Golden Bowl, their gilded-age adaptation becomes something more than a bragged-about text (or elegant costumes or ornate interior design). Terence Davies joked that his Edith Wharton adaptation The House of Mirth was "Jane Austen with the gloves off," and the way The Golden Bowl connects class and personal struggle suggests Merchant-Ivory with the tuxes off. Finally! That's not saying they go Jane Campion's skeevy route in The Portrait of a Lady or take Iain Softley's softcore approach to The Wings of the Dove, but that this is the first Merchant-Ivory classical adaptation to convey an erotic edge. It starts blatantly (and unconvincingly) with a rapacious fantasy sequence illustrating Amerigo's art lecture during a rendezvous with Charlotte. Trying for Bertolucci sumptuousness, Ivory shows he doesn't have it in him. Yet his uncanny casting instinct proves worthy of the text. The actors are articulate and sexual just enough.

Northam, like Nolte and Beckinsale, seems newly faceted. With the most mirthful eyes of any British actor, he's also the most romantic?making the continental Amerigo a credible foil for both polite Maggie and the sensualist Charlotte. Northam maintains the libidinal underpinning to the man's social ambitions. Impressive as Northam's been in the past (especially Amistad and The Winslow Boy), the proof of his complexity is in his always recovering Amerigo's decency and holding his ground while vying with the other actors who get to exert their characters' wills?especially Uma Thurman's extraordinary Charlotte.

Like the film itself, Uma Thurman at first seems all wrong?elegant, sultry and girlish. Yet, the key to the film's melodramatic essence is in the demonstration that all its sensual, intellectual, emotional, social oppositions are mobile yet balanced. Thurman was on/off magnetic/ludicrous in Henry & June where a trick Bronx accent played havoc with her believability, but she's an even better actress now. As Charlotte, Thurman reaches the kind of idealized emotional heights (even when her character is being low-down) associated with the legendary screen beauties?Dietrich hauteur crossed with Clara Bow's insolence. (In fact Charlotte's personal insecurity?her constant dilemma?recalls Bow's character in Joseph von Sternberg's similarly plotted Clara Bow vehicle Children of Divorce.) Charlotte gambles with social status, betrays Maggie and Adam, her face always taking on different shades. Even her vocal pitch varies while her neurotic, precise, lanky movements recall Maggie Smith. But Thurman's mercurial expression suggests unique, heartfelt skill. When she's onscreen, she simultaneously interiorizes and glamorizes what we think of as James' Daisy Miller complexes.

It's only these performances that give vibrant, clearly motivated depth to the character interactions in The Golden Bowl. Strikingly costumed, the actors sometimes become objects (as in Barry Lyndon), reckless lost aristocrats whose image and behavior we are forced to critique. That not only suits James' purpose but it's better than what Merchant-Ivory did for Forster. This works?intermittently?despite the hopeless way Merchant-Ivory crowd objects, tapestries, engravings into a shot. They are able to change lighting and props yet can never set a mood. Several scenes feel hollow, like reenactments of the novel. A waxworks sequence referring to the sexual pantomime at the opening is marred by a redundant distorted mirror?an ultimate demonstration of Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala's infelicitous manner (proof that literary affectations should not be confused with intelligence). When using solarized silent industrial footage for scene transitions, they seem to be going for a Campion effect, foolishly forgetting that Campion's modernism (a combination of sexual superstition and the old-fashioned avant-garde) is what ruined The Portrait of a Lady.

At their most literary-faithful, Merchant-Ivory touch on great complexity, then lose it to melodrama?just like a soap opera, just like the symbolic artifact of James' title. The wedding gift that passes through Charlotte's hands, then Maggie's, is cracked?a sign of imperfect loyalty. But it further symbolizes the Merchant-Ivory wish for elite cinema?a bad, class-snob idea?that is relieved by the very imperfection of this not-genteel, sentimentally effective film. (You need only see the mess Michael Winterbottom has made of Thomas Hardy in Jude and the new The Claim to appreciate Merchant-Ivory's unoriginal slavishness. Will they please do The Return of the Native before Winterbottom botches it!) If it isn't too late to lure people back to quasi-refinement and then surprise them with the actors' melodramatic pith, this Merchant-Ivory would be the one to risk.

Kingdom Come
Directed by Doug McHenry

Slightly different family betrayal is on view in Kingdom Come. This down-home comedy about family infighting resolved in time for a funeral means well but its lack of style and its shamelessness are still pernicious. Who is the worst stereotype? Surprisingly not Whoopi Goldberg, who is quiet and contemptuous throughout. Maybe it's swiveling neck and neck between Jada Pinkett-Smith and Loretta Devine. Miss Pissed-Off and Sister Oh Lawdy! Dignity?or something like non-clownish characterization?is attempted by Vivica A. Fox and Anthony Anderson. (L.L. Cool J continues to depress.)

Adapting a play by David Dean Bottrell, director Doug McHenry confuses a lowbrow lack of humor with a warped idea of how America wants to see black folks. Inferior to the Jeffersons and the numerous touring black vaudeville shows, Kingdom Come makes you feel, as a character in The Golden Bowl says, "stupid with astonishment."

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