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The Golden Bowl (2000)

September 10th, 2007 · 2 Comments

“Miramax is brilliant at publicizing its successes, but it’s even more brilliant at burying its failures,” said Dennis Rice, their former president of marketing. Miramax Films was notorious for test screening its movies – often in malls in New Jersey – and barely releasing the ones that scored poorly. Some went straight to video, even those with major stars. Here’s a look at some of the studio’s B-sides, bombs and greatest misses.

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Outside of Rome in 1903, Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman) takes a tour of an eroding palace with her lover, a charismatic but destitute prince (Jeremy Northam). The prince refuses to call off his engagement to Charlotte’s childhood friend Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), daughter of America’s first billionaire, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte). The prince’s wish is for Charlotte is that she find a suitable husband.

Charlotte arrives in London for the wedding. She takes the prince shopping for a present for Maggie. He advises Charlotte against an antique golden bowl, believing it has a flaw in it. Charlotte is invited to stay with the Ververs, and is paired off with Adam, a widower who has amassed a priceless art collection he plans to display in a museum he’s building in American City. Three years later, Charlotte has married him.

The prince and Charlotte soon rekindle their affair. Maggie’s godmother Fanny (Anjelica Huston) disapproves of the way the two parade about in public, but is powerless to do anything about it. Maggie realizes what’s going on after purchasing the golden bowl for her father, and the shopkeeper recalls seeing Charlotte and Maggie’s husband together. The prince wants to break the affair off, but Charlotte cannot.

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Production history 
Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had worked with Miramax on Mr. and Mrs. Bridge ten years previous. Studio chairman Harvey Weinstein had submitted the prestigious filmmakers to test screenings and withheld money owed them when they declined to incorporate his changes. But seeking a distributor for their new film – an adaptation of Henry James‘ 1904 novel – Merchant-Ivory felt that perhaps Weinstein had mellowed.

The reunion remained amicable until Weinstein got a look at the film. He wanted the running time shortened, and sought Thurman’s support by telling her that her performance was over-the-top, and that the film needed work. She backed her director. To the horror of the filmmakers, Miramax test screened the sophisticated film at a mall in Clifton Commons, New Jersey. It did not score well, but Merchant-Ivory refused to make the studio’s requested changes.

Weinstein responded by threatening to send The Golden Bowl to HBO, but instead of knuckling under and cutting their film, Merchant-Ivory raised $5 million and ultimately bought it back. Lions Gate distributed the film in the U.S. in the spring of 2001. It was never expanded beyond 100 screens, and was quickly forgotten.

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The Merchant-Ivory library is most noted for A Room with a View and Howard’s End, and while I haven’t seen those, The Remains of the Day is one of my favorite movies of the ’90s. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, it’s as close to a perfect portrait of longing and regret as you can make in a movie. The Golden Bowl is not in that elite.

Neither the material nor the cast is assembled very competently. James’ novel lacks magnificence when it comes to its time period and the settings, which are all flat. Instead of focusing on Maggie – the only remotely complex character – the script is centered on Charlotte, who never ceases to be anything more than a needy dingbat. Her romance has no real intensity to it at all.

Thurman is too strong and regal to be believable as a clingy ex, but her performance isn’t her fault, it’s Ivory’s. Northam doesn’t possess much in the way of charisma and is totally out of his element in a part that would have been better suited for someone like Antonio Banderas. The lighting by Tony Pierce-Roberts and the music by Richard Robbins are both adequate, but I’d only recommend the film to die hard fans of the drawing room romance.

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“Despite a pleasing look, fine music and a good acting turn from Uma Thurman, the film lacks a plot with makes us really care about the characters,” writes Barrie Maxwell at DVD Verdict.

Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide says, “While it starts slow, The Golden Bowl gathers momentum as it proceeds toward a fascinating and just conclusion for all concerned.”

“We know that it is indeed possible to make a good film out of a rather dry Henry James novel, as evidenced by the 1949 flick The Heiress with Olivia de Havilland. Unfortunately, this adaptation of The Golden Bowl is a waste of the five hours of our lives that it stole away,” writes Cosette and Thespia at

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Unconventional romance

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 megan // Sep 12, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    I have never heard of this film, but I have much love for Merchant/Ivory productions and ‘drawing room romance’ so I will have to check it out, in spite of the so-so reviews here. If it includes the fantastic Anjelica Huston, it can’t be all bad!

    I do highly recommend you check out Howard’s End. Not as good as Remains of the Day, but still way up there, in my opinion.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Sep 12, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Megan. Merchant-Ivory formed in the early ’60s, but even their fans might have to admit that their best work was confined to the years of 1985-1993. I was impressed to learn that James Ivory is 79 years old and has another movie coming out soon. I hope I’m anywhere at age 79.

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