Just when you thought it was safe to go back into your local art film venue, along comes the new Merchant-Ivory project — which, I'm sorry to report, is pretty much the same as the old Merchant-Ivory project(s), except more so.
The main problem with The Golden Bowl, an impeccably crafted and solidly-performed period piece based on a Henry James novel, is that the film lacks the sort of weight and complexity that have characterized (and redeemed) better Merchant-Ivory efforts, such as Howards End and Remains of the Day. Worse, The Golden Bowl lacks all but the smallest shred of narrative momentum or suspense. In a word, simply and indelicately put, the movie is boring.
The film takes place in the early 20th century and follows four individuals who are related to one another or involved in relationships with one another, some official and publicly sanctioned, some covert and potentially explosive. Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam) is a bankrupt Italian aristocrat married to Maggie, a rich American (Kate Beckinsale), and secretly involved in an off-and-on affair with her best friend Charlotte (Uma Thurman). The cash-poor Charlotte eventually winds up settling for money instead of love, and marrying Maggie's filthy-rich father, Adam (Nick Nolte).
Nothing much happens, but The Golden Bowl still manages to stretch the proceedings into 130 minutes of screen time. Thurman's character becomes more cynical and self-centered as time goes on, but Nolte's and Beckinsale's characters are so peacefully bland that they barely register at all (Northam's character, on the other hand, is a bit more interesting, but not clearly drawn).
The clear and present symmetry of all the various couples is one of Merchant-Ivory's least subtle touches in ages, and the titular bowl (a seemingly perfect Byzantine vessel that has, in fact, one nearly invisible but critical crack) is little more than a strained and heavy-handed metaphor for the flawed marriages depicted in the film. On the plus side, Thurman, who is quite good here, is showcased to fine effect in The Golden Bowl, particularly for her striking ability to occasionally resemble a large, demonic fetus.