Dignified but impoverished aristocrat Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), a Roman prince, is engaged to American socialite Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale). The two were introduced by a mutual friend, Mrs. Fanny Assingham (Anjelica Huston). Maggie shares an extremely close relationship with her millionaire father Adam (Nick Nolte), a widowed tycoon living in England who intends to finance the construction of a museum to house his invaluable collection of art and antiquities in America.
Prior to their engagement, and unbeknownst to his fiancée, Amerigo had a brief but passionate affair with a school friend of Maggie's, Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman). The two separated because both were penniless, but Charlotte is still in love with him. When she arrives in London by surprise to attend the wedding, Amerigo takes her to an antique store in search of a wedding gift. The proprietor A.L. Jarvis shows them an ancient bowl, carved from a single piece of rock crystal and embellished with gold, which he asserts is flawless, but Amerigo thinks contains a noticeable crack. Charlotte is indecisive about buying it, and Jarvis sets it aside until she makes up her mind.
Several years pass, during which time Maggie and Amerigo have a son. Charlotte returns to England to pay the family a visit at their country home, but is left with Adam when the couple decide to visit Italy on the spur of the moment. Adam falls in love with Charlotte and proposes marriage, much to the delight of Maggie, who had been concerned about her father's loneliness. After the marriage the two couples find their lives closely interlocked, although the fact Maggie and Adam spend so much time together alienates their spouses. During a weekend house party in the country, Charlotte and Amerigo reignite their affair. Fanny becomes aware of the illicit romance but, wanting to protect Maggie from being hurt, says nothing. As time passes, however, Maggie becomes suspicious of the amount of time her husband and stepmother spend together.
In search of an unusual gift for her father, Maggie chances to wander into Jarvis' shop, and he shows her the bowl he had set aside for Charlotte years ago. Maggie agrees to buy it and asks that it be delivered to her home. When Jarvis discovers the barely discernible crack Amerigo had noticed, he brings it to Maggie himself, reveals the defect, and offers it at half price. While waiting for her in the drawing room, he recognizes Amerigo and Charlotte in photographs on a table, and he innocently reveals they were the couple who originally considered purchasing the bowl, three days before the wedding. Maggie realizes that the two were not meeting for the first time, as she had always assumed. She confronts Amerigo, who confesses to his past with Charlotte and to their affair.
When the Ververs retire to the country, Adam is noticeably distant. He suggests to Charlotte that they return to America to oversee the opening of his museum, though Charlotte is violently opposed to the idea. The tension grows worse after Amerigo and Maggie arrive with the Assinghams. Charlotte tries to convince Amerigo to run away with her, only to be rebuffed and told that he does not love her. Meanwhile Maggie and her father agree to separate for the sake of both their marriages. Although initially in great despair, Charlotte appears to reconcile to the idea of being with Adam, and the film ends with footage of the couple arriving to great fanfare in an unnamed American city.Kate Beckinsale as Maggie Verver
James Fox as Colonel Bob Assingham
Anjelica Huston as Fanny Assingham
Nick Nolte as Adam Verver
Jeremy Northam as Prince Amerigo
Madeleine Potter as Lady Castledean
Uma Thurman as Charlotte Stant
Nicholas Day as Lord Castledean
Peter Eyre as A.R. Jarvis
Director Ivory, producer Merchant, and screenwriter Jhabvala previously collaborated on screen adaptations of the Henry James novels The Europeans and The Bostonians.
The film was shot at various locations throughout England, including Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, Burghley House in Lincolnshire, Helmingham Hall in Suffolk, the Kew Bridge Steam Museum and Syon House in Middlesex, and Lancaster House and Mansion House in London. Italian locations included Palazzo Borghese in Artena and Prince Massimo's Castle in Arsoli.
The soundtrack includes "Moonstruck" by Lionel Monckton and Ivan Caryll, "Sarabande" by Claude Debussy, and "Wall Street Rag" by Scott Joplin.
The film premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, and when it received a cool reception, executives at Miramax Films, the original distributor, asked Ivory and Merchant to make several cuts to shorten its running time. When they refused, the company sold the film to Lions Gate.
The film opened throughout Europe before going into limited release in the US on 27 April 2001, following an earlier showing at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. It opened on five screens and earned $90,170 on its opening weekend. At its widest release in the US it played in 117 theatres. It eventually grossed $3,050,532 in the US and $2,703,146 in foreign markets for a total worldwide box office of $5,753,678.
The Golden Bowl received mixed to positive reviews; it currently holds a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; the consensus states: "Coming from the Merchant-Ivory team, The Golden Bowl is visually stunning, but the filmmakers have difficulty in transporting the characterizations of the Henry James novel to the screen."
The New York Times observed, "In translating the novel into a film, the producer Ismail Merchant, his directing partner, James Ivory, and their favorite screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, have made a movie that's an ambitious, profoundly ambiguous statement about their own passion for the cultivated, high-culture sensibility epitomized by James and E.M. Forster, as opposed to the cruder mass culture that has eclipsed these literary heroes . . . Much of the dialogue in Ms. Jhabvala's carefully wrought screenplay voices feelings that remain unspoken in the novel, and this is the movie's biggest problem. No matter how well the characters' thoughts have been translated into speech, the act of compressing their rich, complex inner lives into dialogue without resorting to voice-over narration inevitably tends to cheapen them and turn a drama about the revelation of hidden truths into the terser, more commonplace language of an intelligent soap opera."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times observed, "I admired this movie. It kept me at arm's length, but that is where I am supposed to be; the characters are after all at arm's length from each other, and the tragedy of the story is implied but never spoken aloud. It will help, I think, to be familiar with the novel, or to make a leap of sympathy with the characters."
Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle called the film "impeccably mounted, nicely scored and beautifully written" and noted, "Charlotte wasn't the principal character in James' 1904 novel . . . but in the film version . . . she takes center stage. Played by the long-necked Uma Thurman, she's less vixen than ninny - a smooth operator whose maneuvers seem to issue not from shrewdness or intelligence but from a microchip that allows her to robotically spout her lines with careful inflection. It's a blunder of a performance, and makes the viewer wish that Ivory had cast a more accomplished actress - Kate Winslet, perhaps, or Cate Blanchett - who could give dimension to the character and indicate subtext in a way that Thurman can't."
Mike Clark of USA Today rated the film two out of four stars and commented, "Too many dialogue exchanges sound like actors reading lines, and even the film's better performers seem to be acting in a vacuum. The movie establishes good will (or even great will) in the initial scenes because it's so gorgeous, but the rest is such a slog that even the revealed significance of the title artifact elicits a shrug."
Emanuel Levy of Variety called the film "vastly uneven, with some wonderful period touches but also more than a few tedious moments," "tasteful, diffident and decorous," and "a deliberately paced literary film that takes too long to build narrative momentum and explore its central dramatic conflicts." He added, "James' deft portrait of human frailty and his experimentation in narrative mode only intermittently find vivid expression in the work of Ivory and screenwriter Prawer Jhabvala. Everything in the film, particularly in the last reel, is spelled out in an explicit, literal manner . . . Production values, particularly Andrew Sanders' design and John Bright's costumes, are exquisite, but they decorate a film that's too slow and only sporadically involving."
James Ivory was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. Production designer Andrew Sanders won the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Technical/Artistic Achievement.
The Region 1 DVD was released on 6 November 2001. The film is in anamorphic widescreen format, with audio tracks in English and French, and subtitles in English and Spanish. The only bonus feature is the original theatrical trailer.