THE GOLDEN BOWL (2000)
"The Golden Bowl," the much-anticipated Merchant Ivory adaptation of Henry James' novel by the same title. Set in Italy and England in 1904, the film relates the story of a wealthy American art collector, Adam Verver (played by Nick Nolte), and his daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale) whose travels throughout Europe allow them to meet Fanny Assingham (Anjelica Huston), a socialite who attempts to wed Adam to Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman) and Maggie to an Italian prince (Jeremy Northam). As expected from a Henry James drama, intrigue lies beneath the surface of these arrangements. Prior to his marriage to Maggie, Prince Amerigo had an affair with Charlotte. Bored by their new state of luxury, the former lovers resume their old relationship, only to be discovered in a strange twist of fate. The film has been praised by critics as Merchant Ivory's finest, with the standard lush scenery, elegant sets and captivating costumes, but also with a complicated and well-developed plot and moving performances by an all-star cast.
This film is rated R for a sex scene.
From Novel to Screenplay
"The Golden Bowl" was not ismail Merchant and James Ivory's first choice when it came to selecting another
of Henry James's works to transform into a sweeping costume drama, their thirty-ninth film since the partners
joined forces with novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (whose work with Merchant Ivory includes "A Room with a View," "Howards End,"
"The Remains of the Day," and "Heat and Dust") in 1961. Director Jane Campion beat them to "The Portrait of a Lady", which was a
personal dissapointment for Ivory, since Glenn Close had already signed on to costar as the tortured-by-love Mme Merle.
"Then Ismail and I decided that we'd both like to go back to Venice," Ivory recounts, but "The Wings of the Dove", set in that
soggy, romantic city, was prempted as well. 1
The Merchant Ivory team revisited the novel eventually, finding the material (considered to be James' most difficult novel) challenging:
"It's an interior kind of book, a challenge to film with a wonderful story," says Ivory.
"Ruth wanted to try to adapt it, so I said to go ahead." 2
In adapting James' novel for the silver screen, Jhabvala remarks that the novel provided "such grand material,
wonderful scenes, great characters, such wonderful relationships between the characters." 3
On the Maggie's character,
in particular, the screenwriter comments: "I think Henry James loved Maggie Verver. He loves her and he enters into her
more than any other character in any other novel. All of the passion that she has for the prince, this is Henry James'
passion that he has given her." 4
Finally, the screenplay has been noted for its bold use of the golden bowl itself as a symbol that runs
throughout the film. Jhabvala explains, "[I]t's a physical object, which one person buys and another does not.
The moment when the golden bowl is
delivered in the film is also the moment when she [Maggie] discovers about the relationship between Charlotte and her
husband. The golden bowl itself -- Fanny says she does not believe it -- it has a crack, it's damaged, and Fanny says,
'Who would think? It looks so perfect?' And then she [Maggie] says 'yes, a perfect fake'. And that's how she sees the
situation that has been created for her: her marriage and her father's marriage are, in fact, perfect fakes. Like the
golden bowl. And shortly afterwards [Amerigo] asks, well, 'What do you want?' and she says, 'I want a happiness without
a hole in it, I want the bowl without a crack'. So it's a perfect symbol for us." 5
In adapting James' novel to a breathtakingly beautiful screen production, director James Ivory was inspired by the paintings of
John Singer Sargent: "For many years, I had enjoyed his pictures, but I didn't really see his usefulness until we
thought of adapting some of the later Henry James books." 6
Ivory spent time visiting Sargent exhibitions in Washington D.C. and Massachusetts.
The production designer, Andrew Sanders, also modeled the film's costume and sets after the works of James Whistler, Pierre
Bonnard, and James Tissot, a Belgian painter working in England and France in the final decades of the nineteenth century,
who specialized in portraits of beautiful women. The team also collected old photographs of the interiors of
very rich Edwardian houses, which were used as a source in obtaining props and decorating the film's sets.
Because author James did not describe the art or the objects in much detail in the novel,
the set design team looked to paintings for clues to how the aristocracy lived at the time. Sanders remarks:
"I was especially drawn to Tissot, who painted the same milieu but a decade earlier than when the story takes place.
His interiors are the most wonderful of all, and their mood is consistent with James's words." 7
Similarly, James was vague about one of the main character's art collections, which the tycoon expends a huge amount of energy,
money and passion acquiring. "So we had to create a viable collection, from the point of view of an American industrialist," says Ivory.
"Dutch masters and eighteenth-century portraits were the usual things people were buying back then, but we wanted to
create something catholic and peculiar." 8 Inspired by the iconoclastic passions of J.Pierpoint Morgan and
Isabella Stewart Gardner, Merchant Ivory decided that Verver should amass exquisite artifacts overlooked by
most turn-or-the century collectors, such as Raphael drawings and Nollekens statues.
The locations themselves sometimes had artwork that the producers wanted to use in the film.
For example, Ivory recalls a Hans Holbein painting at Burghley House (a magnificent Elizabethan manor of the marquesses
of Exeter located in Lincolnshire), one of the primary locations in the film: "When we saw it,
we had to make that an
area of Verver's collecting." 9 So, too, a Flemish painting that was found at Belvoir Castle
(home to the dukes of Rutland, which served as Fawns, the house rented by Adam Verver, the film's protagonist).
However, some of the paintings and artwork in the film's locations were not appropriate to the set design and had to be worked around, as
"Family collections are not always first-rate or even second-rate. Often you're surrounded by paintings
of heavy-lidded ladies by Levy, which you cannot remove, so
you have to work them into the dialogue when they don't fit the action." 10 Thus, for example, when a visitor to Fawns
politely asks Verver about the paintings of long-nosed aristocrats decorating his walls, screenwriter
Jhabvala has the collector disdainfully shrug them off as one of the drawbacks of renting a furnished house.
Once, Ivory arrived on the set and was confronted with an unappealing statue. "I assumed it was a rented prop," he remembers,
"and I said, 'What is this awful thing?'" A representative of the family that owned the house was
standing within earshot and visibly bristled. "I acted like I'd made a big mistake, but I did not apologize." 11