Beautiful, all too beautiful

<i>The Golden Bowl (12)</i> | Director: James Ivory, starring: Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale, 126 mins <i>Wonder Boys (15)</i> | Director: Curtis Hanson, starring: Michael Douglas, Frances Mcdormand, 111 mins
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The Independent Culture

The new Merchant-Ivory production, The Golden Bowl, is based on one of Henry James's grandest and most complicated novels, composed in the mature style of his later years and originally inspired by a newspaper story. James himself nutshelled the plot in a line: "the father and daughter, with the husband of one and the wife of the other entangled in a mutual passion, an intrigue." He could almost have been pitching a movie.

The new Merchant-Ivory production, The Golden Bowl, is based on one of Henry James's grandest and most complicated novels, composed in the mature style of his later years and originally inspired by a newspaper story. James himself nutshelled the plot in a line: "the father and daughter, with the husband of one and the wife of the other entangled in a mutual passion, an intrigue." He could almost have been pitching a movie.

It's essentially a tale about property and control. An impecunious Italian prince, Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), is about to marry American heiress Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), daughter of Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), the coal billionaire and art collector. Maggie knows nothing of her fiancé's recent liaison with her old schoolfriend, Charlotte (Uma Thurman), who would have married the prince but for her own impoverishment. Instead she marries old man Verver and, by a faintly grotesque twist, becomes her ex-lover's mother-in-law.

The film fans out into an examination of this almost incestuously close family. Amerigo has told Charlotte that it will take "all our best intentions" to make sure neither of their partners knows of their past, but best intentions, as they often will, go up in smoke, and with Maggie and her father absorbed in each other's company, they resume their affair during a visit to a hooray house party in Gloucestershire.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay highlights the crucial narrative moments by slyly using art as a metaphorical language of inquiry and revelation. The first inkling Maggie has that her husband is unfaithful comes in a casual mention of a trip he and Charlotte took to a king's tomb at Gloucester cathedral; Charlotte later echoes the motif when she describes her marriage as an entombment. Imagery of falseness and distortion abounds. Verver talks of art in terms of spotting genuine and fake. The adulterous couple visit a waxwork museum and a hall of mirrors, then later at a fancy dress party have their photograph taken or, in the parlance of the day, "exposed".

The principal metaphor in this regard is the golden bowl itself, an objet which Charlotte was about to buy for Maggie's wedding present until Amerigo pointed out a flaw in the glass. The bowl, to explain one metaphor through another, turns out be a smoking gun after Maggie fortuitously buys it for her father years later. When she learns of the affair, she says, plaintively: "I want happiness without a hole in it, a bowl without a flaw" - but the only way to get rid of the flaw is to smash the bowl, and at this point a subtle but distinct shift occurs in the balance of power.

Registering this shift makes demands on the cast, who are good without being distinguished: there isn't a stand-out performance. Could this be to do with the formidable psychological complexity that James has brought to bear on his characters? The way in which the swaggering confidence of Thurman (looking rather consumptive) in the earlier scenes takes a nose-dive in the later part surely requires closer explanation than a short lecture on the masculine power inscribed in a portrait of Henry VIII. Trying to fathom Kate Beckinsale's character at all is tougher than algebra: does the sweet, ingenuous and slightly dim girl of the first part become a monster of manipulation or simply a woman taking charge of her life? It's usually safe to assume that money is a prime motivation in James, but how much does passion also influence Amerigo?

These puzzles, set against the clogged opulence of Edwardian London, sustain interest without ever inflaming it. The clash between American innocence and Old World cunning never approaches the tragic intensity of the last screen version of James, Iain Softley's wonderfully insinuating The Wings of The Dove. Nor does it match the fluency of its movement. James Ivory frames his shots with tremendous precision, and Andrew Sanders' production design keeps the interiors in a state of immaculate burnish. Yet while the eye can feast, the mind tends to wander, particularly in the latter stages. As for the heart, I must confess, it didn't get a look-in.

The prospect of Wonder Boys put a spring in my step. Based on the novel by Michael Chabon, it's directed by Curtis Hanson ( LA Confidential), written by Steve Kloves ( The Fabulous Baker Boys) and stars Michael Douglas as a pot-smoking academic undergoing a midlife crisis. It's a dramatic change of pace for Douglas, a much more interesting actor than he's given credit for. Instead of his usual ballistic satyrs and supermen, he gives a wry and self-deprecating performance as a rumpled, lame-duck English professor, Grady Tripp, who's terrified he's a has-been. Seven years ago Tripp wrote a great novel, The Arsonist's Daughter, that won prizes and made him a literary hero to smart undergraduates; since then he's been struggling to complete the follow-up, which has ballooned beyond 2,000 pages of manuscript. As the story begins, Tripp's wife has just left him and his married lover, Sara (Frances McDormand), who also happens to be the college chancellor, tells him that she's pregnant.

The movie follows him over the course of a chaotic and often farcical weekend. Along with his domestic entanglements, Tripp also has to field the attentions of his agent, Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr), who's just off the plane and eager to check on the new novel; of a pretty student, Hannah (Katie Holmes), who's rooming in his house and perhaps wants to make the tenure permanent; and of James Leer (Tobey Maguire), the gifted but troubled star of his creative writing class. He ends up driving around night-time Pittsburgh in his battered old Ford trying to keep his protégé out of trouble and a colleague's dead dog (don't ask) out of sight.

With a cast this strong and a leading actor unexpectedly prepared to mock himself, you can't imagine how Wonder Boys can fail; and it doesn't, exactly. Yet while it's entertaining and amiable, I kept wishing it were more of a blast - sharper, funnier, maybe even a bit nastier. Douglas is great as the beleaguered prof, perfecting the look of a man who's just got out of bed and wishes he hadn't; it's a sartorial watershed for him, too - having sported the most vilified item of clothing in Nineties cinema (the V-neck in Basic Instinct), he may well have surpassed it here with the world's worst dressing-gown.

Problem is, Tripp is the only decently developed character in the movie. Downey Jr and Maguire get some good scenes without building to very much, while Frances McDormand and Katie Holmes are ignored for long stretches. There's even the incomparable Rip Torn on display as a visiting senior novelist whose success naturally puts Tripp's teeth on edge, yet you'll have forgotten him by the end. One imagines that certain lines worked better in Michael Chabon's novel than they play on screen: self-conscious literary banter that sounds fine in one's head has a tendency to stink by the time an actor gets at it. See Wonder Boys for Douglas, though, and remind yourself that creeps and thugs aren't the limit of his repertoire.

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