Stars: Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Jeremy Northam, Kate Beckinsale
Director: James Ivory
Writer: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the Henry James novel
This Merchant-Ivory production set in the early 1900s of London, America and Italy is their usual sumptuous feast of finery: lush costumes, beautiful gardens and magnificent houses and castles. But, as in some of their other films, the story here is staid and the characters lack sufficient dimension to intrigue the audience for its full 130-minutes length. Translated: it’s pretty boring.
The acting, however, is impeccable and Thurman fares best as a real woman of the times in her characterization of Charlotte Stant, an American in love with an Italian, and a woman who really would rather marry for love than money.
But, her Prince Amerigo (Northam sporting a serviceable but very faint Italian accent) knows that would do neither of them any good marrying under those conditions and he seeks his status in the arms of Maggie Verver, the cherished daughter of rich industrialist Adam Verver (Nolte) whose new world wealth will help in Amerigo’s restoration of the ancestral palace in Italy.
With Amerigo and Maggie’s happiness secured in marriage and a new baby arrived, Charlotte shows up to rekindle her childhood friendship with Maggie and what she hopes will be a fling with the Prince himself. All goes as planned with one hitch. Charlotte actually gets hitched, herself, to Adam and now her status in high society is equally secured. And while both Amerigo and Charlotte try to remain somewhat aloof, telling no one of their past relationship, the aloofness doesn’t last long.
Despite their respective marriages, father and daughter remain close allies, spending inordinate amounts of time together and neglecting their spouses, which leaves Amerigo and Charlotte free to engage in both social and private affairs – together.
Adam spends the whole of the movie acquiring valuable art to collect dust in a museum he plans to build in the coal town that made his fortune. He says he wants to finally bring some beauty to those who have only known black soot all the days of their lives and in that sense, it’s a noble cause But, it seems Charlotte is the only smart one around him when she suggests, rather angrily, that perhaps the people there would appreciate more practical things needed to ease their hardships rather than having the masterpieces that Adam so adores. Nolte’s character could have been a fascinating one with all that wealth and power, since he’s advertised as “America’s first billionaire” on screen, but what we’re served is simply a brooding art lover in a tuxedo
The truly interesting characters are that of Fannie and Bob Assingham (Anjelica Huston and James Fox) and we wish there were more of them throughout the film. Fannie’s the era’s best matchmaker who becomes exceedingly perturbed over her client Amerigo mucking up his marriage to the perfect woman in Maggie. But she’s smart enough to realize that her meddling could cause even more damage than it’s worth.
Lotta says this is a keenly produced film of turn-of-the-century affairs of the heart and mannerisms. Everything’s there but characters who pop off the screen and rope you in, and a story that engages completely.