Left cold by the agony and the Ivory

The Golden Bowl (12) | James Ivory, 126 minsGrey Owl (PG) | Richard Attenborough, 118 minsLoser (12) | Amy Heckerling, 95 minsIn the Realm of the Senses (nc) | Nagisa Oshima, 105 minsPurely Belter (15) | Mark Herman, 99 mins
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The Independent Culture

When Henry James wrote The Golden Bowl he was 61 years old and madly in love. His mood made for a story of temptation and jealousy, supposed innocence and gilded American cash. Although he once claimed its real subject was "pathetic simplicity and good faith," you only have to read a few pages to see this is nonsense (thank God). Director James Ivory would disagree.

When Henry James wrote The Golden Bowl he was 61 years old and madly in love. His mood made for a story of temptation and jealousy, supposed innocence and gilded American cash. Although he once claimed its real subject was "pathetic simplicity and good faith," you only have to read a few pages to see this is nonsense (thank God). Director James Ivory would disagree.

It is London, 1903. Elegant, educated American Charlotte (Uma Thurman) is crazy about an Italian prince (Jeremy Northam). Neither has any money. The prince has to renovate his palazzo, and so he marries Charlotte's mind-bogglingly rich American friend Maggie (Kate Beckinsale). She's good and kind and blah. Her father, a widower and art-collector called Verver (Nick Nolte), marries Charlotte. And so the four spend all their time (in august Merchant-Ivory locations) together. Father and daughter are obsessed with each other, panting Charlotte with the prince, and the Prince with - well, just what does the Prince think he's doing with Charlotte? You'll have to return to the book to find out (he's the most sympathetic character in it, even though he's a scum-bag cheat).

Otherwise, the film is pretty unambiguous. Nice Verver! (How could such a decent guy ever get so rich?) Unimpeachable Maggie! (Such a brick.) Silly Italian! (A slapped wrist for you, principe.) Tragic Charlotte! (How ferociously you think and feel, poor girl.) There's no point looking to Ivory for James's spirit of discomfort - the whole notion that the Ververs have essentially bought their partners is side-stepped because Ivory wants us to like them, these children, come fresh and trusting from the great Republic. So we must look to the actors. How splendid they are. Nolte with his canine, affronted face - in one scene he stands at a buffet, complaining that there is nothing for him to eat, and the secret petulance in his voice is pure Verver. Here he is, eyeing up the slices of goose like he did Charlotte. A collector at work. Thurman does her usual combination of glorious and awful, jittery and languid, that mouth always about to say the words save me, now. And yet Ivory must sweeten the pill. All horror, all traps are removed. We must go home charmed.

Grey Owl tells the true story of Archibald Belaney, born and raised in Hastings at the turn of the century, who re-invented himself in Canada as a native frontier trapper, and later as a lecturer on conservation. Grey Owl's big thing was beaver. Without him, there wouldn't be any left in Canada. Now try saying that without smirking (infantile, I know, sorry). Factor in Pierce "007" Brosnan playing the man responsible for all this beaver-love and you've got an audience helpless with giggles. Attenborough - who seems to have directed the whole thing through a mist of tears in between sips of tea thick with condensed milk - presents the story so trustingly that it feels like bullying to pick holes. Put simply, it's baby food.

Loser follows a geek in his first year at university in New York mooning over a dinky chick, and learning that there is no harder brand of graft than lurve. At one point they play Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair", and you almost weep with nostalgia (I mean it) for The Graduate and Katharine Ross rushing down those steps at Berkeley with her legs and hair and eyeliner.

Nagisa Oshima's once-banned piece of erotica In the Realm of the Senses gets a small re-release. It is part winning (the colours, the wit), part tedious (mewing girls, silent men - the conventional sounds of porn). Purely Belter is a wretched, clumsy film in which two young lads rob their way to a pair of season tickets for Newcastle. You'll have noticed the posters - yelling "Great British Film!". The whole notion of patriotism in art is ludicrous anyway, but even more so is the idea that our industry needs special pleading. It has no-one to blame for its repeated embarrassments but itself. To misquote the eponymous hero of Withnail & I: "You can stuff the Great British Film up your arse, and f--k off while you're doing it."

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