Vastly uneven, with some wonderful period touches but also more than a few tedious moments, "The Golden Bowl" is Ismail Merchant and James Ivory's third screen adaptation of a Henry James novel. Like those efforts, new film is tasteful, diffident and decorous, and like them it suffers from lack of subtlety and miscasting, here in the case of leads Uma Thurman and Jeremy Northam, playing lovers whose adulterous affair entangles their lives in a complex, fateful web.

Vastly uneven, with some wonderful period touches but also more than a few tedious moments, “The Golden Bowl” is Ismail Merchant and James Ivory’s third screen adaptation of a Henry James novel, following “The Europeans” (1979) and “The Bostonians” (1984). Like those efforts, new film is tasteful, diffident and decorous, and like them it suffers from lack of subtlety and miscasting, here in the case of leads Uma Thurman and Jeremy Northam, playing lovers whose adulterous affair entangles their lives in a complex, fateful web. Miramax faces an uphill battle Stateside in marketing a deliberately paced literary film that takes too long to build narrative momentum and explore its central dramatic conflicts.

Over the last five years, James’ work has enjoyed a resurgence in American cinema, with new textual readings in the daring but not entirely successful efforts of Agnieszka Holland (“Washington Square”) and Jane Campion (“The Portrait of a Lady”). Iain Softley’s “The Wings of the Dove” (released by Miramax in 1997), which deviated substantially from James but was true to its sophisticated, ambiguous spirit, was anchored by a terrific performance from Helena Bonham Carter, a Merchant Ivory vet who would have been much more effective than Thurman as “Golden Bowl’s” protagonist.

The first reel is particularly weak and diffuse: It takes the filmmakers a good half-hour to establish the historical milieu and dramatis personae, jumping around from 1903 to 1909 and moving back and forth between England and Italy.

Story proper centers on Amerigo (Northam), the descendant of an illustrious but bankrupt line of Roman princes, about to marry Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), the loving daughter of America’s first billionaire, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), a retired tycoon who lives in Europe and who hopes to transfer his invaluable collection of art to a major American museum.

Before his engagement, Amerigo had a passionate affair with Charlotte (Thurman), an American school friend of Maggie’s who grew up in Europe. Too poor to marry, the couple parted, but Charlotte is still in love with Amerigo and hopes to rekindle their flame. Her reappearance just days before his wedding triggers a series of events that ultimately will damage two marriages and send four lives spiraling out of control.

In a crucial scene set in a store, Charlotte and Amerigo discuss which present she should buy for Maggie — and then which presents they themselves should exchange. They set their eyes on an ancient golden bowl that store owner Jarvis (Peter Eyre) insists is flawless. When Charlotte is indecisive, Jarvis promises to keep the bowl for them, unaware of the symbolic importance and practical value the piece will later assume.

When Charlotte announces her plan to marry widower Adam, it sounds like a good idea to everyone, particularly Maggie, who has been concerned about her father’s loneliness. Scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala devotes the second, more involving half of the narrative to exploring how the four protags handle the secrets and lies that dominate their lives. A further complicating factor is Aunt Fanny (Anjelica Huston), who knows about the illicit romance but is trying to protect the innocent Maggie from being hurt.

In his last completed novel, James showed in a masterful, ironic manner the facades and masquerades of the central characters, their power games in the name of love as well as survival. Unfortunately, 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.

With the help of lenser Tony Pierce Roberts, Ivory lovingly details the settings in which the psychodrama unfolds, with lavish re-creations of costume balls, demonstrations of Adam’s architectural designs and inventive glimpses of the industrial revolution in America. But impressive and sumptuous as these reconstructions are, they serve to further weaken the storytelling, making the draggy pacing even more damaging to the central action.

Film’s most disappointing aspect is the work by the two leads. Thurman is effective at conveying modernist cool, but she is not particularly adept in period pieces. Burdened with an unconvincing Italian accent, Northam lacks authority in portraying the conflicting emotions of a man who loves his wife but is passionately involved with another woman.

Beckinsale, as the initially naive wife who eventually plays her own games, and Huston, as the nosy yet sensitive Fanny, acquit themselves better, but it’s Nolte who provides the pic’s most resonant performance.

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.

The Golden Bowl

U.S.-France-U.K.

Production

A Miramax release (U.S.) of a Merchant Ivory Prods./TF1 Intl. presentation in association with Miramax Films. (International sales: TF1 Intl., Paris.) Produced by Ismail Merchant. Executive producers, Paul Bradley, Richard Hawley. Directed by James Ivory. Screenplay, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Henry James.[###]

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Tony Pierce Roberts; editor, John David Allen; music, Richard Robbins; production designer, Andrew Sanders; art directors, Lucy Richardson (U.K.), Gianni Giovagnoni (Italy); costume designer, John Bright; sound (Dolby/SDDS), David Stephenson; supervising sound editor, Nigel Mills; hair designer, Carol Hemming; assistant director, Christopher Granier Deferre; casting, Celestia Fox. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 14, 2000. Running time: 134 MIN.

With

Charlotte Stant - Uma Thurman
Prince Amerigo - Jeremy Northam
Maggie Verver - Kate Beckinsale
Adam Verver - Nick Nolte
Fanny - Anjelica Huston
Bob Assingham - James Fox
Lady Castledan - Madeleine Potter
Jarvis - Peter Eyre
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