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Festival of Mights

On Golden Pondering

Let us now praise famous filmmakers, specifically the lauded team of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, whose latest film,

The Golden Bowl

, headlines the Miami Film Festival. In forty years and seventeen theatrical productions, this team has compiled a superlative record of finely wrought films, almost all of them adaptations of literary works (including the critically acclaimed

Howard's End

and

A Room with a View

). This record of achievement is unmatched in modern moviemaking, a welcome antidote to the slapdash overhyped tripe regularly dished out by Hollywood.

Following their tradition The Golden Bowl is an adaptation of Henry James's 1904 novel. An intimate account of illicit desire and betrayal, it's a fascinating tale, one that James himself considered his most successful work. The movie features some excellent performances from a stellar cast, superior production values, and a lush painterly re-creation of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Italy and England. As is his custom, Ivory works with many long-time collaborators, such as screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, cinematographer Tony Pierce Roberts, and composer Richard Robbins. These long-term relationships pay off: There's an assured feel to this film, with a look, pace, and texture that's a pleasure to behold.

The story has to do with one Prince Amerigo, an impoverished Italian nobleman who must reluctantly abandon his equally poor amour Charlotte Stant to marry her wealthy best friend, Maggie, the sweet doting daughter of Adam Verver, an American art collector who happens to be the world's first billionaire. Amerigo figures he's better off dropping Charlotte entirely, but the affair continues after she marries Verver and becomes Amerigo's mother-in-law. Thus begins a romantic pas de quatre that takes many a surprising turn as the lovers' spouses slowly begin to suspect what's going on.

As usual Ivory is fortunate in his cast. Uma Thurman gives the performance of her career as a passion-addicted woman who pursues her lover come hell or high water. Thurman's Charlotte is a marvel as her passion turns to increasing desperation that teeters on madness, a tour de force that suggests what Thurman could do with even bigger roles, say, Hedda Gabler or Lady Macbeth. She is matched stride for stride by Nick Nolte, whose subtle, confident performance as Adam Verver marks yet another notch in a distinguished career. Kate Beckinsale, whose upcoming role in the war epic Pearl Harbor should garner widespread notice, is charming and effective in the rather limited role of Maggie. Anjelica Huston nearly steals the movie as Fanny, a family friend who knows what Amerigo and Charlotte are up to but anguishes whether to reveal their secret. All these performances perfectly fit James's story, and watching the actors sink their teeth into their roles is a pleasure.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Jeremy Northam as Amerigo. This versatile, talented actor has delivered excellent work in his career, but here he's off the mark, miscast and misdirected in this pivotal role. The Golden Bowl relies on the ambivalent character of Amerigo. He's supposed to be so seductive and attractive that both women are mad for him despite their knowledge of his two-timing ways. Amerigo's actions must be deplorable yet understandable; he's a man at war with his passions and his sense of honor. Like many an Englishman playing a Latin, Northam delivers the honor and the charm but doesn't get the passion part. He doesn't seem to be rent by emotions as much as he's troubled and bothered; he's more dazed than dazzled. But this problem might have more to do with Ivory, whose method, it appears, is to cast well but then let his actors go.

That said, Ivory himself seems to break some newer, bolder ground here. After an entire career of self-effacing unobtrusive directing, he seems to be tiring of his director-as-adapter role. He makes extensive use of an anamorphic lens, which throws backgrounds into unfocused softness while keeping the foreground subject in sharp focus. The effect is akin to Impressionist painting and adds a strange dreamy quality. He also includes some brief yet interesting touches of fantasy, with flashbacks to Renaissance times and wax museum figures that come alive as if out of Cocteau. Ivory adds some interesting documentary footage, injecting the jarring black-and-white world of industrial America as newsreel, an intrusion he then briefly plays with.

There's little doubt here that The Golden Bowl will satisfy Merchant-Ivory's many fans. Then why must I reluctantly admit that I am not among them?

It comes down to ideology -- what one thinks movies are for. If film exists to tell stories well, with great craft and care, then without question Merchant-Ivory are superior filmmakers. But if film's essential function is to observe and reveal what it means to be alive at this particular point in time, to offer a specific voice or point of view, these craftsmen fail miserably. Their carefully assembled middlebrow adaptations say little about the Edwardian world they return to again and again, and zero about our own. It's the same endless parade of rustling skirts, starched shirts, dark saturated blacks and browns, gorgeous interiors and exteriors, and measured visuals. The camera admires great works of art, and we admire the camera work as art.

So what? Ivory seems determined not to impose his mark on his literary sources. But by repeatedly returning to the same era, to the same culture and cultural assumptions, Merchant-Ivory are saying many things: that they prefer a fantasy world of refined emotions without any conflict, that minorities and the working class are irrelevant except as scenery, that Latins (Italians) are dangerous and decadent while Americans are impossibly boorish, and that British culture reigns supreme. Merchant-Ivory are in danger of becoming the Ralph Lauren of filmdom, cranking out faux aristocratic reveries without a hint of the contemporary. The interiors are breathtaking -- all the woodwork gleams; all the silverware glitters. Even the rare glimpses of machinery and everyday work are spotless: no grit, no grease, no messy reality. This relentless focus on art, literature, and aesthetics may be high-minded, but it is escapism nonetheless. In this regard The Golden Bowl has more in common with Hollywood slashers and sci-fiers than these filmmakers might care to think. I don't want to be too hard on Merchant-Ivory. Their works will hold up over time precisely because they ignore their own time. But they have been drawing from the same well far too often.

The Golden Bowl is quite a catch for the Miami Film Festival, but it's a curious choice as the opener, a position usually reserved for a film that embodies the festival itself. For all its virtues, it certainly is not representative of the festival's personality or the roster of films that are presented this year.


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