The Rediff US Special/Arthur J Pais
"Long, long ago, my father told me that when one door closes, hundreds open," said Ismail Merchant six months ago.
A door certainly had closed on him just then.
Miramax Pictures, which distributed artistic movies like Shakespeare in Love and Crying Game, had suddenly decided not to distribute The Golden Bowl, the latest film produced by Merchant and directed by James Ivory.
Based on a 1904 classic by Henry James, the intensely psychological film was based on a script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The novel questioned, among other things, the onslaught of 20th century capitalism and the notion that money can buy everything. It also examined troubled emotional and sexual relationships, and the clash of cultures and classes.
Merchant and two collaborators, who have worked together from the early 1960s, were clearly hoping The Golden Bowl will bring them new renown and some money.
The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala trio has been responsible for some of the more artistic films in the last two and half decades, including the Oscar-nominated hits A Room with a View and Howards End. But in the past decade, most of their movies have not been able to make a strong impact with critics and they have not had a prayer at the box-office.
Miramax apparently dropped the film because Merchant and Ivory did not want to cut down its length from 130 minutes. The film, starring Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman and Anjelica Huston, had opened at the Cannes film festival to mixed notices, and many had complained that it was too long.
But the film-makers would not budge.
''I would rather have the film released by someone who appreciates what we have created,'' Merchant had declared. And after some search, he sold the film to a smaller distributor, Lions Gate.
''They are hundred per cent behind our film,'' he said. ''They understand what this film is about. And they are prepared to nurture it so that audiences will discover it over a period of many weeks.''
At the weekend, moviegoers in New York and Los Angeles will have a chance to find out if the critics abroad and Miramax were wrong about the movie. The Golden Bowl is expected to expand to more than 20 cities in four weeks.
Unlike abroad, the movie has got many upbeat reviews in America.
''Filmed in several grand estates and palaces around Europe, The Golden Bowl is probably the most lavish Merchant-Ivory film,'' The New York Times wrote.
''Yet nowhere do you get a sense that it is substituting décor for substance.''
Critic Stephen Holden declared the movie is an ambitious, profoundly ambiguous statement about Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala's passion for high-minded literature.
''My Advice is: Just Watch It,'' declared Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. ''The Golden Bowl is elegant and passionate in ways that stick with you. It casts a potent spell!''
And Leonard Matlin declared in Playboy: ''Richly satisfying. Another feather in Merchant-Ivory Cap.''
Performances got raves, too, especially that of Thurman.
But with the raves on this side of the Atlantic, the question remains if the public will embrace the film with such enthusiasm that it would become an art world hit.
In England, Italy and a handful of countries where the film was released last year, there wasn't much of a box-office to write about. It has barely grossed $3 million abroad. The film cost about $15 million and needs to gross at least $30 million to break even.
During the height of the popularity for Merchant-Ivory films, their comparatively lighter films such as Howards End grossed about $30 million in North America. Even if The Golden Bowl fails to be in the same league, this much can be said of it: It has redeemed the reputation of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team.
Practically each of them is in their 60s. And to find people going after their artistic vision at such age is certainly a rarity in today's America.
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