Rating: R for adult situations
Run Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
The venerable trio of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, and Ruth Prawer Jhabavala (hereinafter referred to as “Merchant-Ivory”) are back in the saddle, with a lush, tasteful Henry James adaptation that reeks of unkempt passion and scandal.
What would the opulent, turn-of-the-century social scene be without illicit romantic entanglements? In this case, the cause-de-affair is a fabulous foursome, a pair of marriages incestuously intertwined for quadruple the disgrace. Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), a distinguished, but bankrupt, Italian aristocrat has broken off a fervent affair with luscious American expatriate Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman), because both are too poor to make a proper match. Amerigo, no fool he, affiances himself to Miss Maggie Verner (Kate Beckinsale), the sheltered daughter of America’s first billionaire (Nick Nolte as Adam Verner). Three days before the wedding, Charlotte and Amerigo rendezvous one last time, in search of the perfect bridal gift for Maggie. In a quirky antiques shop in London, the pair come across an aged golden bowl. Charlotte is charmed, but Amerigo insists the flawed vessel is a bad omen for his impending nuptials.
Fast forward to domestic bliss. Amerigo and Maggie are the parents of a beautiful baby boy, and Verner is putting the final touches on his dream project – a colossal American museum that will house his burgeoning art collection. Taking pity on the still-single Charlotte, Maggie invites her for a lengthy stay at her father’s London estate. Big mistake, Mags. Charlotte is relentless in her pursuit of Amerigo, whom she continues to love with a singular desperation. Verner, seeking a partner to share his vision and not immune to her ample charms, asks for her Charlotte’s hand in marriage. Delighting in the opportunity to be perpetually close to her lover, Charlotte accepts. (A fresh spin on the concept of the ever-maligned mother-in-law, no?). Father and daughter sense the betrayal, and draw closer together. Charlotte and Amerigo continue to play with fire, reveling in the risk of being badly burned.
Merchant-Ivory know their way around a lush adaptation. The early 1900 details are exquisite, from the palatial homes, furnishings, and grounds, to the sumptuous gowns and jewelry. The four principles wear the period well, not a hair out of place. Typical of the times, the juicy illicitness remains unspoken, but pervasive. Thurman goes for the gusto with her poor-little-rich-girl, whether trapped in a mausoleum of affluence or in flagrante delicto. Lines are delivered thespian style, too dramatic and too stagy for the subtle nuances of the piece. The symbolism of the golden bowl, when ultimately revealed, is a clunky, tenuous connection. Nevertheless, nothing satisfies like a scrumptious Merchant-Ivory.