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[whitespace] Uma Thurman and Nick Nolte
Using and Used: Uma Thurman and Nick Nolte pursue a dangerous course of marriage in 'The Golden Bowl.'

All That Glitters

Nick Nolte dominates stiff adaptation of Henry James

By Nicole McEwan

IN The Golden Bowl, Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), a bankrupt Italian aristocrat, leaves his penniless lover, Charlotte (Uma Thurman), to marry her friend, a wealthy yet naive American heiress, Maggie (Kate Beckinsale). His decision is cruel, his motives selfish, but because this is an adaptation of Henry James, a scribe so prized for "complex" and "ambiguous" characters, we are prepared to believe there's more here than meets the eye. Funny thing is, James' novels, despite their literary pedigree, are shockingly similar in tone and theme, if not in setting and plot. Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove, The Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl all concern cunning vultures, hardened by lack of funds and the soft-bellied prey that sustain them.

For the social climbers whose lives James obsessively chronicles, the phrase "Use or be used" isn't necessarily a motto, it's simply a fact of life. The Jamesian trick is to make their manipulations somewhat benign by portraying these romantic mercenaries as victims of fate forced to play the meager hands that life has dealt them. An easy call--or at least it was a century ago--when a poor women's path led to the convent, the whorehouse or the schoolhouse. No wonder these schemers captured his readers' imaginations so fully. But that was then, and this is now. So when Charlotte follows in her ex's calculating footsteps by befriending and eventually marrying his father-in-law, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), she seems not so much a gold digger as a woman with well-honed survival skills.

The truth is more tragic, alas. Charlotte still carries a flaming torch for her de facto son-in-law, who has up until now been a faithful husband to the innocent, doe-eyed Maggie and a doting father to their beatific child. But there's an "intruder" in their marriage--namely, Daddy Verver, whose unusually symbiotic relationship with his daughter is emotionally if not physically incestuous. Left to their own devices, Charlotte and Amerigo resume their affair. Soon the house of cards they have so carefully constructed verges on the edge of collapse.

If only we cared. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, whose names became shorthand for exquisitely mounted, finely acted period pieces in the 1980s and '90s, seem to have exhausted themselves in perfecting the look of James' most "difficult" novel at the expense of creating compelling characters. Assembling masterpieces to stand in for Verver's immense art collection (a Citizen Kane-sized treasure trove) must have been a strenuous task indeed. The statues truly are grand. Oddly, it's the actors who seem frozen and lifeless. Northam's Amerigo is so dispassionate that Thurman's histrionics seem overblown--she's a Blanche du Bois with no Stanley Kowalski in sight. Of the four leads, only Hollywood exile Nolte imbues his character with the shades of gray James intended--wanting the comfort Maggie's company provides yet knowing his omnipresence is unhealthy; both drawn and repulsed by Charlotte's attractive if unyielding company, Nolte plays the Rockerfeller-level titan as someone who stepped on a lot of backs to achieve his position. Verver knows manipulation firsthand. He has used and been used. And unlike poor love-deluded Charlotte, he's smart enough to know the difference.


The Golden Bowl (R; 130 min.), directed by James Ivory, written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Henry James, photographed by Tony Pierce-Roberts and starring Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman and Jeremy Northam, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and the Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto.

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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