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Merchant Ivory Productions has taken on many challenging projects in its time. But none has seemed more daunting than filming "The Golden Bowl," one of Henry James's most dense and allusive novels.

It's not just that James's book cares more about states of mind than about actions and behaviors. This is true of other literary works (e.g., "The Remains of the Day") that Merchant Ivory has successfully filmed. And a story does emerge from James's intricate prose about an American businessman and his daughter whose new spouses share a hidden history.

But even James's ardent admirers will acknowledge that "The Golden Bowl" is different. While most novels dwell on what characters say and do, this one dwells on the thoughts and emotions within their deepest selves. It contains dramatic moments, of course, as when we learn the symbolic fate of the golden bowl itself. But if ever a novel was content to burrow inside the skulls of its characters and stay there for record-setting numbers of pages, "The Golden Bowl" is surely it.

All of which must have made James's ornery masterwork into an irresistible Everest for producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory to climb. They have already conquered James's novels "The Europeans" and "The Bostonians," and they've made first-rate films from novels by E.M. Forster and Jean Rhys, among others. Could they turn "The Golden Bowl" into an equally winning movie?

The answer may depend on how willing you are to accept the fact that no movie could be both faithful to the spirit of James's novel and a rollicking Saturday-night entertainment. The casting nods toward Hollywood, with Nick Nolte and Kate Beckinsale as the rich Americans, plus Uma Thurman and Jeremy Northam as their mates. The screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala stays on a literate Jamesian road, however, ably capturing the tone of his highly interiorized tale.

The result could be too staid and stolid for audiences on the hunt for lighter fare. But anyone who gives "The Golden Bowl" a chance will be delighted with Ivory's sumptuous visual style and the exquisitely crafted early-20th-century milieu on which his cameras linger. No other film this year has offered more stimulating pleasures for the eye and the imagination.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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