The Golden Bowl

UK/France/USA 2000

Film still for The Golden Bowl

Reviewed by Ginette Vincendeau


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Italy, 1903. Impoverished Italian prince Amerigo is to marry American heiress Maggie Verver, a schoolfriend of his mistress Charlotte whom he must now abandon. Charlotte comes to London for the wedding and, unbeknown to Maggie, convinces Amerigo to accompany her to buy a present for his new bride. They find a golden bowl but Amerigo pronounces it flawed and rejects it.

A few years later, Amerigo and Maggie have a baby boy, and alternate between their house in Italy and the English country home of Maggie's father Adam Verver, a rich industrialist and art collector who plans to open a museum in the US. Verver marries Charlotte. Amerigo and Charlotte resume their affair, to the horror of London society, and provoke guilt in Fanny, a family friend who engineered Amerigo's marriage to Maggie despite knowing about his previous affair with Charlotte. Meanwhile Charlotte is jealous of the bond between her husband and Maggie. Amerigo and Charlotte spend a weekend together in Gloucestershire, arousing Maggie's suspicions. When she coincidentally buys the same golden bowl for her father, she finds out about the affair and confronts Amerigo who swears his love for her. She secretly engineers for her father to take Charlotte away. He agrees and takes her back to the US with his art collection.


The Golden Bowl is the latest in a line of heritage productions by director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant. It also belongs to the growing canon of Henry James adaptations, including The Europeans (1979) and The Wings of a Dove. No doubt it will be judged by literary-minded critics in terms of its 'faithfulness' to the book. Not having read the novel, my own line of enquiry was simpler: how good a movie is it?

Heritage cinema is frequently used by film critics as a term of abuse, which is odd since the genre displays intrinsically cinematic qualities: spectacular mise en scène, painstakingly researched decors and objects, wonderful performances by stellar casts. From this perspective, The Golden Bowl scores highly, if not all the time. With lush locations ranging from an Italian palazzo to a great English country house, the film is visually exquisite; as in the early 'cinema of attractions', each new setting induces wonder, not just at its beauty but also at its scale and grandeur. Moreover such display is not there for the sake of it - it plays an active part in the narrative. Dealing with the consequences of Charlotte's affair with Amerigo, an impoverished Italian nobleman who marries Maggie, daughter of rich American industrialist Verver, this is a story about the way emotions are bound to, and driven by, property and wealth. Amerigo's crumbling palazzo is the narrative mainspring, since he marries Maggie to preserve it. At the end, Verver takes his art treasures, including Charlotte, back to America.

It is thus appropriate to the genre that the key object in the story - the golden bowl, a piece of antique crystal - should be the driving metaphor. As Maggie says when she finds out about Amerigo and Charlotte's affair, "I want happiness without a hole in it, a bowl without a crack." As well as weaving an intricate thread between objects and feelings, the film makes connections between mise en scène and narrative, representation and reality. It opens with a stylised vignette involving Amerigo's 16th-century ancestors, a tale of jealousy which acts as a mise en abyme for the rest of the story. It ends with flickering black-and-white archive footage of early 20th-century America. The Golden Bowl thus encases its characters' fate within a double trajectory: that of the march of time and that of technologies of representation. Throughout, key narrative moments are told through self-conscious references to art: Verver woos Charlotte by showing her his Raphael drawings, her affair is revealed to London society at a fancy-dress ball and Amerigo's renovation of his castle parallels his growing attachment to Maggie. The revelation of the adulterous liaison is linked to the golden bowl, but the clinching evidence is a photograph of Charlotte and Amerigo in fancy dress ("Are you comfortable?" the photographer asked them, "Then I shall expose!"). There are slides, tableaux vivants, ballets, films within the film, a hall of mirrors.

And yet despite the sophistication of its spectacle, The Golden Bowl fails to be fully satisfying. The story drags at several points, notably in the initial exposition and then towards the end. And while the ambiguities of the relationships between Amerigo and Charlotte and between Maggie and her father are cleverly conveyed, the Verver-Charlotte dynamic feels underwritten. Even more strikingly, the friendship between the two women remains shadowy.

Performances are a mixture of the wonderful and the weak. Uma Thurman and Nick Nolte are typically brilliant (though there is not enough of Nolte's Verver, and Thurman, while perfect as the imperious Charlotte of the first part, is less credible as the forsaken mistress at the end). Kate Beckinsale as Maggie is fine in a thankless part. The problem is Jeremy Northam, underwhelming as the aristocratic Latin lover with a dodgy Italian accent. Surely, you're left thinking, Italy has actors as well as palazzi. Northam's weak performance unbalances the film as it becomes increasingly difficult to see why he should be the object of such passions. These reservations however do not invalidate the overall accomplishment of the film. Like its eponymous artefact, The Golden Bowl is flawed - yet it remains an object of great beauty and elegance.


James Ivory
Ismail Merchant
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the novel by
Henry James
Director of Photography
Tony Pierce-Roberts
John David Allen
Production Design
Andrew Sanders
Richard Robbins
™ Golden Bowl Productions Ltd.
Production Companies
Merchant Ivory Productions and TF1 International present in association with
Miramax Films a Merchant Ivory film
Executive Producers
Paul Bradley
Richard Hawley
Italian Associate Producer
Fabrizio Mosca
Production Co-ordinators
Anna Hall
Penelope Perry
Barbara Ruggeri
Production Managers
Sarah Bradshaw
Marcantonio Borghese
Key Location Manager
Christian McWilliams
Location Manager
J.J. Hook
Assistant Directors
Christopher Granier Deferre
Adrian Toynton
Paula Turnbull
Emma Horton
Anya Gripari
Filippo Fassetta
Script Supervisors
Beverly Winston
Giorgia Onofri
Celestia Fox
Shaila Rubin
2nd Camera Operator
Colin Corby
Steadicam Operator
Peter Cavaciuti
Digital Effects
Digital Film, London
Art Directors
Lucy Richardson
Gianni Giovagnoni
Set Decorators
Anna Pinnock
Cinzia Sleiter
Martin Foley
Costume Designer
John Bright
Janet Tebrooke
Laura May
Dan Grace
Amanda Knight
Trefor Proud
Researcher/Make-up & Hair Co-ordinator
Elizabeth Lewis
Hair Designer
Carol Hemming
Zoe Tahir
Title Design
Optical Effects Producer
Susi Roper
Peerless Camera Company
Solo Piano
Simon Chamberlain
Solo Cello
Philip De Groote
Solo Saxophone
Phil Todd
Harry Rabinowitz
Marcia Crayford
Orchestral Arrangements
Geoffrey Alexander
Kirsty Whalley
"Moonstruck"; "Sarabande" from "Pour le piano"; "Wall Street Rag"
Karole Armitage
Sound Mixers
David Stephenson
Gilberto Martinelli
Re-recording Mixers
Robin O'Donoghue
Richard Street
Dominic Lester
Nigel Bennett
Supervising Sound Editor
Nigel Mills
Dialogue Editor
Nina Hartstone
ADR Editor
Phillip Alton
Foley Editors
Peter Holt
Martin Cantwell
Kate Beckinsale
Maggie Verver
James Fox
Colonel Bob Assingham
Anjelica Huston
Fanny Assingham
Nick Nolte
Adam Verver
Jeremy Northam
Prince Amerigo
Madeleine Potter
Lady Castledean
Uma Thurman
Charlotte Stant
Nicholas Day
Lord Castledean
Peter Eyre
Jarvis, shopkeeper
Nickolas Grace
Robin Hart
Mr Blint
Daniel Byam Shaw
Principino at five years
Francesco Giuffrida
duke's younger son
Marta Paola Richeldi
the duchess
Rossano Rubicondi
duke's older son
Mattia Sbragia
the duke
Billy Monger
Pauline Rainer
Susan Gutfreund
vivacious guest
Arturo Venegas
Italian ambassador
Raymond Green
Anthony Bevan
Neville Phillips
man talking to Castledean
Paul Bradley
Lucy Freeman
Lucy Moncreif
Phillip Tabor
William Davenport
Catherine Aldrich
Isabel de Pelet
Richard MacRory
Caroline Burnaby-Atkins
guest at Fawnss
The ballet
Piers Gielgud
Antonia Franceschi
1st queen
Philip Willingham
William Dignon
little prince
Ray Souza
Leanne Codrington
Amy Bailey
Michaela Burgess
Simon Humphry
Michela Meazza
Stephen Hughes
Tippi Maravala
Buena Vista International (UK)
tbc feet
tbc minutes
Dolby Digital
In Colour
Prints by
Technicolor UK
2.35:1 [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011