At the turn of the century, Prince Amerigo marries Maggie, the daughter of American tycoon Adam Verver, after ending things with his stubborn lover Charlotte. However, Charlotte then marries Adam in a bid to remain close to her true love.
Merchant Ivory's latest period drama has all of their usual trademarks, plus the sumptuous production values and luscious settings that made their previous films like A Room With A View and Howards End such successes.
Because it is based on a Henry James novel (Washington Square), you know from the outset that this is not going to be a happy tale - more surprising, perhaps, are the almost incestuous undertones in the relationship between young Maggie (Beckinsale) and her rich American father, Adam (Nolte). In fact, when Maggie marries the dashing but impoverished Amerigo (Northam), she still spends more time with dad, and when dad marries the stunning, if slightly bonkers, Charlotte (Thurman), even her beautiful looks and low necklines can't wrench him away from his daughter. One wonders whether daughter and dad are actually huddled in a corner laughing at the miscasting of Brit Jeremy Northam as an Italian prince. With both a risible accent and an even worse, gravy-stain fake tan, poor Jeremy provides the only humour of the piece, and his bashing of the Italian pronunciation brings a welcome respite when director Ivory and screenwriter Jhabvala get bogged down in too much stiff upper lip and not enough action about two-thirds of the way through.
However, a slightly overstretched running time is really the film's only flaw, and one that many Merchant Ivory fans looking for beautifully filmed entertainment (and it is) will probably forgive. After all, as compensation for possible bottom-numbing-in-seat towards the end, Ivory once again delivers a well-performed - most notably by Nolte and Thurman - and exquisite-looking tale of manners, love and betrayal. And who said literary culture had to be comfortable?
Yes and no. If you like Merchant Ivory, you probably won't mind the pace. But if women in long skirts and men with manners aren't your cup of tea, this will seem excruciating, even with Thurman and Nolte on board.