I just watched the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala production of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl. The main thing that struck me about the film was Jhabvala’s screenplay. If I had written an adaptation of James’ novel, it would have been a cynical mess. But this film is a tribute to human dignity and the abilities that we all have to grow and learn and change. It is the kind of film that makes you cry where you think you wouldn’t.
The best example of this is when Maggie goes to comfort Charlotte about her sudden and bewildering situation of losing her lover (Maggie’s husband) and being forced to move to America with Maggie’s father, who Charlotte is married to. Before doing so, Maggie’s husband asks what she will say. Maggie replies, “It will depend upon what she will say to me—whatever she can find to save her pride.” And so she goes. And Charlotte saves her pride by claiming that she is taking Maggie’s father away from her because Maggie has always been jealous of their love. It is a wonderful sequence that rips your heart out the same way as the end of A Tale of Two Cities, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…”
Although I think the film is very good, it does have its problems. The biggest problem is that the first half of the film moves along awfully slowly. In the end, it does all pay off, but less committed viewers would probably just turn it off. Another problem, and this may just be me, is that Uma Thurman just isn’t that good. Her accent seems all over the board and at times she plays scenes like the character is a psychopath. Still, she’s a good crier, and has a wonderful scene with Nick Nolte at the very end.
There is one other problem, but it is indicative of my pedantic nature regarding dramatic structure. The film is about 4 people. But it ends being only about Charlotte. I understand why this was done: it is clear where the other characters end; there is happiness all around. It is harder to get Charlotte there. But I think this was unnecessary. I don’t really believe she will ever be that happy. Anyway, the novel isn’t really about happiness it is about acceptance. And we know that Charlotte learned that lesson.