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

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


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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