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  • Widescreen 2.52:1
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 70.53)
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
    English - Hearing Impaired
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Cast/crew biographies
  • Production notes
  • Animated menus
  • Interviews - cast and crew, 22 minutes

The Golden Bowl (Rental)

Palace Films/20th Century Fox . R4 . COLOR . 125 mins . M15+ . PAL


If the words “costume drama” strike fear into your heart and the mere mention of Merchant Ivory results in endless nightmares about terribly proper people making much terribly proper ado about nothing, well, you’re not alone. After just over four decades of making movies, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant have become synonymous with the art of the lavish cinematic period piece, and as a result have gotten the blame for a lot of genuinely boring stuff that they actually had nothing to do with at all. The last two decades have seen Merchant Ivory focus on the classics of English literature, and while that concept might have many dashing for the ticket booth marked Spider-Man, the resulting films have almost always been immensely involving and a lot more crowd-pleasing than you might expect from such a genre. Remember, these things have a tendency to win Oscars and get attention at Cannes, no mean feat in itself.

The Golden Bowl, based on Henry James’ final novel, has not been greeted with the kind of critical and audience acclaim that Merchant Ivory films usually have lavished upon them. Exactly why, though, is a mystery. Far from being a colossal bore or a cold, emotionless trek through a century-old story of the idle rich, The Golden Bowl is actually one of the most quietly passionate films the Merchant Ivory team has made. A lot of that’s due to James’ story, which may well be set in a world of people with big houses, big clothes and too much time on their hands, but still manages to say a great deal about the politics of human relationships (James himself, by the way, was rather well off and was presumably writing about life from his own perspective!)

America’s first billionaire is one Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), a gentle, gregarious man who wants to be remembered for something more than being an old rich guy. A lot of that has to do with his daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale) who he adores and confides in like a best friend. Maggie’s about to marry Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), an Italian with lots of his own money and a beard that makes him look disturbingly like Edmund Blackadder. Trouble is, the good Prince has been having a few problems putting an end to his previous relationship with the somewhat money-deprived but undeniably attractive Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman). And Charlotte just happens to be Maggie’s best friend. Undaunted, she marries Maggie’s father, instantly making her both substantially more well off and, unfortunately, Prince Amerigo’s mother-in-law. Their affair continues, as Verver makes plans to build a giant museum in American City to hold all of his stuff and his wife. Needless to say, all this may not end particularly well.

Thought this kind of thing was stuffy and boring, didn’t you? Not this time; though moderately lengthy at just over two hours, the film moves at a cracking pace - helped immeasurably by the performances of the leads, who all understand the subtlety required to convey what’s going on just underneath their characters’ spotlessly polite demeanours. Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (who’s scripted many times for Merchant Ivory as well as being a novelist in her own right) strikes a perfect balance with the dialogue, never getting bogged down with archaic phrasing or excessive “authenticity” - she knows full well that the visual aspect of the film will sell the realism of it all, while the dialogue works to help the audience relate to characters that would otherwise be quite possibly as annoying as hell.

And those visuals are absolutely spectacular. Long renowned for their attention to detail in both costume and production design, the Merchant Ivory team has outdone itself here, the film positively glistening with widescreen splendour thanks to stunning cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts. Also greatly helping in the atmosphere department is Richard Robbins’ music score, which is consistently inventive and richly layered.

There’s a wonderful subtlety about The Golden Bowl, and if the story were transplanted to the present day it’d probably be a rather big hit with Dawson’s Creek fans (don’t discount the possibility, either, as teen movie producers run out of Shakespeare and Jane Austen stories to pilfer!) But don’t go into this thinking of it as “another costume drama” (what fictional film doesn’t have costumes, anyway?) - it’s got wider appeal than that.


First of all, let’s set those alarm bells ringing for those of you with widescreen TVs - the video on this disc is not 16:9 enhanced, which is surprising considering the studios that were involved in the release of the film. It’s likely that a 16:9 transfer simply hasn’t been done, though; despite a claim to the contrary in at least one review of the region 1 version of this title, the US disc is also 4:3 letterboxed; at least here there’s the benefit of the extra resolution of the PAL format to lessen the pain.

And actually, there’s not a lot of pain to be had here for the majority of viewers. Despite its lack of 16:9 enhancement this is a very nice transfer indeed, with plenty of detail and colour as well as ample shadow detail, the latter especially important as this film makes extensive use of natural light - and the particular moods set by a lack of it. However, there’s a fair bit of aliasing on hard edges to be found here - mostly, for some reason, during the first half of the film - which seems to be an unfortunate by-product of the occasional burst of excessive edge enhancement. However, to our eyes this was not an insurmountable problem - unlike some other aliasing-rich discs we could mention, it’s only a minor issue here and will pass largely unnoticed by most people (though those with huge screens should probably be more wary). There are absolutely no problems at all from the video compression end of things, and the layer change is superbly placed so as to be almost unnoticeable.

The movie is letterboxed at an unusual ratio, which got us curious enough to capture a frame and measure it; the result was an extra-wide 2.52:1, very nearly the ratio of the original CinemaScope! However, The Golden Bowl was shot in Super 35, and this extra matting appears to have been an intentional decision - certainly there are some perfectly-composed ‘scope images throughout, and director James Ivory makes good use of the wide frame. It’s not an enormous amount of extra matting over and above the usual 2.40:1 ‘scope ratio, either way, and should please those who like their movies seriously widescreen!


The single audio track here is the Dolby Digital 5.1 theatrical mix, which is fairly old-school in that it uses the surrounds sparingly and very modestly for atmospheric enhancement and not a great deal more, while the LFE track is called into action only to add bass to the music score. It’s a perfectly serviceable mix that is more reminiscent of the Dolby Stereo era, but which has ample fidelity throughout - just listen to how good the music sounds. The location dialogue is occasionally a little thin-sounding, but is always intelligible and has the undeniable advantage of sounding more natural than the usual post-sync frenzy that is almost compulsory on today’s movie soundtracks.


Jacket picture, DVD Text encoding, lovely animated menus… why, this could only be authored by one company, right? As it turns out, yes, Madman Interactive did put this disc together, and they’ve done their usual stylish job with it, the audio-backed animated main menu (and matching jacket-picture screen) quite visually lovely.

Not so lovely is the disc’s enforced startup delay, which makes you wait through a remarkable 51 seconds of copyrights and logos before you can even hit the stop button. After that, you are greeted with a pair of trailers for upcoming Palace/Fox discs before the menu arrives, but during these trailers you can hit the menu button to skip them completely.

There’s not much here in the way of extras, though some effort has been made to include worthwhile material; note that the region 1 disc offers only a trailer (there’s no region 2 disc at the time of writing, though this disc is coded for region 2 as well as region 4).

Trailer: The theatrical trailer for The Golden Bowl, not in especially good condition and rather staid for something that’s supposed to be selling a movie.

Cast Interviews: This is the meat of the extras - 19 minutes of on-set interviews with the key members of the cast, playable either separately or as one long featurette with titles indicating who’s talking next. Offered full-frame, this is quite obviously the raw material given to TV stations to add to their entertainment-news programs’ stories about the movie. Most of the cast are in costume, although Kate Beckinsale appears to have come in specifically to be interviewed, and seems a bit bewildered that she was chosen for the part!

About Henry James: Ten pages about... Henry James! Also includes a brief bibliography of his best-known work and the movies that have been made from it.

About Merchant Ivory Productions: Meet the people behind the famous name. Three pages each on Merchant, Ivory and screenwriter Jhabvala, a five-page filmography and, on their respective pages, video interview excerpts for James Ivory (about three minutes) and Ismail Merchant (just under two minutes).

More From Palace Films: From here you can directly access the two trailers that play on disc startup - they’re for the films Pane E Tulipani (Bread And Tulips, from Italy) and Ma Femme Est Un Actrice (My Wife Is An Actress, from France, which looks like enormous fun).


You’d expect that by now a new Merchant Ivory production would only provoke excitement in those that eagerly follow their films, but The Golden Bowl is one of the most accessible, relevant things they’ve done - and ironically, one of the least successful commercially and critically. For us this film “clicked”, though, and it’s well worth spending two hours with. And aside from anything else, you can’t help but admire the sheer craftsmanship of it all.

Palace’s DVD is well authored and offers extras that its US counterpart does not, and despite the drawback of being stuck with a non-anamorphic video transfer this is still a visual treat for everyone except those using high-end equipment; however, those with big screens have as much right to a good picture as the rest of us, and so the video gets marked down accordingly.

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      And I quote...
    "...one of the most quietly passionate films the Merchant Ivory team has made"
    - Anthony Horan
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