Dir: James Ivory. US. 2000. 135 mins.

Prod Co: Merchant-Ivory. Int'l Sales: TF1 International. Prod: Ismail Merchant. Exec prods: Paul Bradley, Richard Hawley. Scr: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the novel by Henry James. DoP: Tony Pierce Roberts. Prod des: Andrew Sanders. Ed: John David Allen. Mus: Richard Robbins. Main cast: Kate Beckinsale, James Fox, Anjelica Huston, Nick Nolte, Jeremy Northam, Madeleine Potter, Uma Thurman.

Returning to the source of previous successes, the latest Henry James adaptation should go a long way to restoring faith in the Merchant Ivory brand name after a number of recent box-office disappointments. Mounted with typical elegance and attention to detail, its languorous pacing and often unsympathetic characters may prevent it reaching the dizzy commercial heights of their E.M. Forster work or attracting uniformly favourable critical notices. Their reputation and an insatiable appetite for literary translations should still secure it a ready welcome from upscale audiences. The team's previous James adaptations include The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984).

Painstaking production design, breathtaking European locations, fabulous finery and the deft craftsmanship of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have become hallmarks of the Merchant Ivory tradition and are amply evident in this eloquent, sumptuous-looking production.

Set in England and Italy between 1903 and 1909, the story offers a rich portrait of the cruel games that lovers play and a society in which language is as brutal a weapon as any blade. Sporting an uncomfortable accent, Jeremy Northam is impoverished Italian aristocrat Prince Amerigo. Infatuated with the equally impecunious Charlotte (Thurman) he decides to wed for money. His choice is Maggie (Beckinsale), the daughter of American billionaire industrialist and noted art collector Adam Verver (Nolte). Shortly afterwards, Charlotte also marries for money. She chooses Adam as her catch, thus permitting her to remain dangerously close to her former paramour.

Initially, the Ververs know nothing of this deception and the bulk of the story centres on the shifting balance of power between the quartet as the clandestine relationship proceeds to its ironic and tragic conclusion. Central to the secrets and lies between the couples, the golden bowl of the title is a stunning object crafted in crystal and bewitching to the eye of the beholder. It also contains a barely visible crack providing a metaphor for the bewitching but deadly beauty of Thurman's character and a broader point on the need to glimpse beyond initial impressions or perceptions to find the heart of the matter.

Looking ravishing every time she appears on screen, Thurman has the most problematic character. A selfish schemer with no concern beyond her own happiness, Charlotte is very much the blithe architect of her own tragedy and thus difficult to sympathise with. Far too noble for her own good, Beckinsale's Maggie is also hard to accept as a devoted wife and daughter willing to sacrifice everything for the happiness of others. True to the proprieties of the period, the characters and their plight may be seen as foolish by modern audiences.

A dapper looking Nolte is astutely cast as the cultured American whose velvety refinement occasionally cracks to provide glimpses of the ruthless determination that has made him his fortune. Anjelica Huston co-stars as compromised matchmaker Fanny Assingham. Given some of the film's most barbed and wounding lines, she delivers them with masterly relish and steals every scene in which she appears.