“I want our happiness without a hole in it.”
Based on the Henry James novel, The Golden Bowl is a lavish costume drama set in the early twentieth century. The film follows the personal lives of the four main characters–the penniless Charlotte (Uma Thurman), the impoverished Italian Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), billionaire Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), and his naive daughter, the heiress Maggie (Kate Beckinsale). The film begins in the rundown Italian residence of Prince Amerigo as he shows Charlotte through the splendours of the once great palace. It seems that the Prince and Charlotte have had a romantic relationship that is about to come to a screeching halt. He ends his liaison with Charlotte citing the need to search for a rich wife. His tepid attempts to console Charlotte include the callous advice that she too should seek a rich spouse.
The Prince’s hunt for a rich wife is successful, and on the eve of his marriage to Maggie Verver in London, Charlotte arrives. It seems the two young women are ‘best’ friends from school, and Maggie, who is in the first glow of perfect love, can’t wait for her friend to meet the Prince. It’s a crucial moment, but both the Prince and Charlotte act as though they are complete strangers. Charlotte, however, grabs the first opportunity to approach the prince and confess that she wants to renew their intimate relationship.
In due course, Charlotte marries the lonely billionaire Adam Verver. He’s obsessed with collecting European treasures that are ultimately destined for his hometown, American City. Charlotte is yet another of his treasures. Verver obviously selects her with a connoisseur’s eye, and her proximity makes it all the more convenient. Verver is an interesting character. He’s made his billions from various factories in America, and he feels a twinge of guilt about his workers. He intends to build a museum as a sort of reward for their labours. He reasons that the workers will be able to come and visit all the beautiful treasures he’s collected for them–treasures they would never see without his beneficence. There’s a cold calculation where this man’s heart should be.
An extremely unhealthy and claustrophobic relationship begins to develop between the four main characters. Charlotte and the Prince are often thrown into each other’s company, and they also invent opportunities. Charlotte moves through her barren life always on the edge of hysteria. Just how much the Ververs suspect or choose to ignore absorbs the remainder of the film. So much remains unspoken, but Adam Verver proves to be the master of the sinister threat.
This Merchant Ivory version of The Golden Bowl leans towards the lavish soap opera and largely ignores the novel’s complex psychological aspects. In spite of this, the plot remains more or less true to the novel, and Henry James fans should be sufficiently pleased with this tasty costume drama to dust off their novel and seek the source once again.