Henry James’ Americans Shop for Love and Art Abroad

James Ivory’s The

Golden Bowl , from a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel

by Henry James, and produced by Ismail Merchant, reunites the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala

team on a cinematic adaptation of a Henry James classic-reportedly for the last

time, though this will probably not deter the pseudo-brutalists from their

sneering condescension toward the alleged sins of gentility and formality,

summed up in the catch-all epithet ” Masterpiece

Theatre .” Indeed, the firm of Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala seems never to have

been forgiven for demonstrating, in A

Room With a View (1986) and Howards

End (1992) particularly, that there was money to be made and awards to be

won for bringing to the screen reasonable replicas of great literary works for

viewers who don’t move their lips when they read.

This is not to say that the new movie version of The Golden Bowl is beyond criticism

because of the good intentions of its makers. Far from it. That the film came

out as well as it did, considering that the novel is perhaps James’ greatest,

densest and most exquisitely articulated work, is itself little short of a

miracle. I was particularly worried in advance by the casting of Nick Nolte as

American widower Adam Verver and Uma Thurman as American expatriate Charlotte

Stant. They just didn’t sound right for the parts, somehow; they just sounded

available. As it turned out, they were just fine, even though their characters

were made subtly more dominant in the end than those of the more aptly cast

Kate Beckinsale, as Maggie Verver, and Jeremy Northam, as Prince Amerigo. In

the process, the original point of the James story has been interestingly


For people who have not read the book-and they have always

greatly outnumbered the people who have, even in the select ranks of art-house

patrons-I should try to explain what I think the point of the story was for

James. According to the production notes, the plot of the novel “was inspired

by an anecdote James heard concerning a young woman and her widower father who

learned that their spouses were engaged in an affair.” Over the years, there

have been movies in which two people discover that their respective spouses are

cheating on them with each other. Usually, the betrayed pair get their own back

by completing the adulterous quadrille. This is not possible with a father and

a daughter. Still, the relationship between Adam Verver and his daughter Maggie

comes very close to incest in terms of emotional intimacy and rapport.

In fact, the relationship between Maggie and her father is

more extensively developed than that between the father and Charlotte, the

young stepmother; between Maggie and her husband, Prince Amerigo; between

Maggie and Charlotte, her school friend; or between Charlotte and the Prince,

who had been intimate before Maggie’s marriage and after. As a result, Maggie

and Charlotte end up in a mutually constructed web of deception and

manipulation. If there is a feeling of loss at the end of the book, it is most

strongly felt by Maggie and her father over their enforced separation to save

her marriage to the Prince.

The Golden Bowl is

James’ most thinly populated novel, with but four major characters and only one

go-between, Anjelica Huston’s Fanny Assingham. Though Fanny’s omnipresence has

been somewhat reduced in the movie, she does get to smash the golden bowl, as

in the book, to eliminate the metaphorical evidence of the Prince’s betrayal of

Maggie with Charlotte, but to no avail. Maggie knows, but she does not want

Charlotte to know that she knows-partly for Charlotte’s sake, partly for the

sake of her marriage, but mostly for the sake of her beloved father. That is

why the movie should end with Maggie and the Prince in a troubled embrace as in

the book, and not with a black-and-white projection of Adam and Charlotte

arriving in America with all his art treasures, like the beneficent robber

barons of old, the J.P. Morgans and Andrew Carnegies and such.

I suspect that Mr. Ivory

was driven to his alternate ending because of his weariness with the enervating

Europe of Henry James. Certainly, Adam’s art treasures and his dreams of a

magnificent museum in an “American city” are there in James’ novel, and one can

make of these dreams what one will, but the heart of the drama is the ultimate

triumph of Maggie over Charlotte, at whatever cost.

I suspect also that Mr. Ivory and Ms. Jhabvala were

uncomfortable with the suggestion in the James novel that money does indeed

make the world go around-and indeed, as much in matters of the heart as in

matters of state. When you think about it, The

Golden Bowl is a case of the rich, seemingly innocent Americans brilliantly

manipulating a cash-poor Italian prince and a Europeanized but also poor American

beauty. Thus, the only true love in the story-that between the Prince and

Charlotte-is thwarted by the sheer weight of the money involved. Maggie is not

at all humiliated by her awareness that she has purchased a Prince with her

father’s immense wealth. This is the way of the world, though not the way of

most movies. Yet that seeming crassness is what makes The Golden Bowl such an original story for the cinema.

A curious addition to the movie I do not recall from the

book is a violent period flashback-that is, much earlier than James’ early 20th

century-of an abduction, with swordplay, of a woman sleeping in the Prince’s

Roman palace. It may be a joke played by Merchant-Ivory on their more

bloodthirsty critics: You want violence, we’ll give you violence-and now back

to our more customary civilized graces.

I must say that Ms.

Beckinsale, whose star in the movie firmament seems to be rising, comes close

to capturing the sublimity of Maggie, despite the obvious fact that no movie

can capture the elegant copiousness of James’ prose. I for one am grateful to

the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala troika for even trying to climb a literary Mount

Everest like The Golden Bowl . Their

zest and taste is particularly refreshing when so much of filmmaking has

descended to the most vulgar level of the bottom line. They deserve better in

the way of critical reaction, and I hope they get it.

The Invisible Women

Jafar Panahi’s The Circle ( Dayereh ), from a screenplay by Kambuzia Partovi, based on an

original idea by Mr. Panahi, suggests for a time that the plight of women in

Iran is almost comparable to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. The

misogynistic persecution begins in the maternity ward of a Teheran hospital,

where a woman in a chador waits before a closed rectangular panel for news of

her daughter’s delivery. The ultrasound test had promised a boy, but a nurse

opens the panel to announce that the daughter delivered a girl instead. The

woman in the chador turns for the first time toward the camera, and we see her

face: sorrowful, almost terrified. It is the face of a woman who knows her

son-in-law’s family will abandon her daughter. The woman flees as the in-laws

arrive. She is but the first victim of an institutionalized oppression of women

in Iran and other Muslim countries. In a circular narrative, Mr. Panahi tracks

the separate but similar predicaments in which eight women find themselves on

the streets of Teheran.

Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani), after escaping from prison,

flees her home for fear her two brothers will kill her for disgracing the

family-and they don’t even know that she is pregnant and unmarried. Pari

searches through the city for someone who can perform an abortion, which can be

obtained legally only with the written permission of a husband, father or other

male relative. (It was news to me that abortions were permitted in Iran at all,

with or without permission.) She seeks the help of Elham (Elham Saboktakin), a

nurse married to a doctor in her hospital but estranged from her family because

of her prison record.  But Elham cannot

help Pari without incriminating herself with her husband. Indeed, all the women

in The Circle have prison records of

one kind or another, but we’re never told why they were sent to prison in the

first place. A movie in which the eight women characters are either escaped

convicts or ex-convicts would not seem to qualify as a fair cross-section of

Iranian women. Still, it is through the misadventures of these women that Mr.

Panahi illuminates several of the restrictions that apply to all Iranian women.

Mr. Panahi credits the inspiration for the story to a

journalistic source: “One day I noticed a small article in the newspaper: A

woman committed suicide after killing her two daughters. There was nothing

about the reasons behind the crime or suicide. Perhaps the newspapers did not

see any need, since in many communities, women are most deprived. Their freedom

is limited to the point it seems as if they are in a big prison. This is not

only true for a particular class of women, but for all of them. As if each

woman could replace another in a circle, making them all the same.”

Hence, it matters little whether the character is named

Arezou (Maryiam Parvin Almani), Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh), the hardly seen,

hapless mother of a despised daughter at infancy in the beginning of the

picture (Solmaz Gholami), Monir (MonirArab),Nayereh (Fatemeh Naghavi), who

abandons her daughter in the hope that she will find an enlightened family to

care for her, or Mojgan (Mojgan Faramarzi), who “adjusts” after a fashion to

the injustice. The society itself is the villain. And, as in The White Balloon (1995), Mr. Panahi

displays great skill in directing non-actors.