In Art's Service

By Cunneen, Joseph | National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001 | Go to article overview

In Art's Service


Cunneen, Joseph, National Catholic Reporter


Henry James adapted, and two good Iranian films

The opening of The Golden Bowl promised to be a major spring event for former English majors and those with cultural yearnings, but the Master wouldn't have much liked it. As usual, the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, working again with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adapting of Henry James' novel, maintain the highest production standards, take their audience to impressive European locations, and communicate a sense of refinement and assured elegance. Stung perhaps by criticism of some of their work as middlebrow "Masterpiece Theater" fare, they open with an attention-getting opening scene with uniformed guards storming an ornate Renaissance bedroom to separate two adulterous lovers amid much sound and fury. The idea is to suggest the flamboyant family history of Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), a handsome but impecunious Italian aristocrat. In 1904, several centuries after the opening scene, Prince Amerigo is about to marry the innocent Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale). It will take quite a while for most moviegoers to make this connection, however. In any case, the scene is over-wrought.

If directors make their own interpretation of works they are adapting, they need to remember that they proceed at their own risk. The Merchant-Ivory "Golden Bowl" exploits the star appeal of Uma Thurman as Charlotte Stant, Maggie's best friend, who constantly throws herself at the prince, a former lover. The effect is to considerably absolve the prince of responsibility in resuming their affair after his marriage, and to reduce James' complex study of Maggie's growth in maturity to high-class soap opera. The movie keeps Maggie in the background and introduces embarrassingly flamboyant "entertainments" at the supposedly elegant affair the prince and Charlotte attend at a distinguished English estate.

In fairness it should be pointed out that no movie can capture the subtleties of James's style. For "The Golden Bowl" it would be especially difficult since James is so sparing in his use of direct dialogue, and his text does not lend itself to brief "voice-overs." Still, there is hardly reason to bother with James at all if one ignores his preference for "a certain indirect and oblique view" of the action.

Nick Nolte provides something of what is needed in his portrayal of Maggie's billionaire father, Adam, who marries Charlotte at least partly to reassure his daughter that he will not be lonely. Fanny Asingham (Angelica Huston), who had prepared the way for Maggie's marriage, and her disengaged husband (James Fox), offer comically contrasting attitudes to the unfolding story.

Although Northam suggests the divided motivations of the prince and Beckingsale's growing maturity gradually becomes evident, the movie fails to capture the complex consciousness of James' characters.

If you're looking for more adventurous moviegoing, seek out two new Iranian movies: "The Day I Became a Woman" and "The Circle." Since these courageous and imaginative films on the condition of women do not have national distribution, you may have to wait a few months and rent them down at a good video store.

Amazingly, The Day I Became a Woman is the directorial debut of Marziyeh Meshkini. She films the three vignettes with power and economy, concentrating on human faces and the beauty of the surrounding sea. The screenplay of her director-husband, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, explores the heart of its feminist theme without cliche-or bombast. There are no slogans, just people struggling with their fates.

The first segment takes place on the day Hava (Fatemah Cheragh Akhtar) turns 9. Now she must wear a chador. She and a neighbor boy had planned to go to buy some ice cream, but grandmother tells her she can no longer play with boys, and her mother measures out the cloth needed for the chador. Finally, the grandmother relents: Since Hava was born at noon, she may play until then. …

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