If the idea of a Merchant-Ivory film based on a novel by Henry James automatically makes your eyes glaze over, The Golden Bowl may come as a pleasant surprise. No, it’s not what you’d call action-packed (the Pearl Harbor set will be chagrined to learn that nothing explodes), but it is more briskly paced than might be expected and is blessed by believable — often moving — performances and a solidly crafted and adult Ruth Prawer Jhabvala screenplay. In some ways, the film is reminiscent of last year’s very disappointing The House of Mirth, but minus that film’s hoary melodramatics and impossibly artificial dialogue. The premise is not dissimilar, nor are the central characters. Charlotte (Uma Thurman in easily the best performance of her career) is on the right side of society every way but financially. She is also a bit of a freethinker, but a good bit more pragmatic and less stupidly self-destructive than Mirth’s Lily. In many ways, the film is what one expects from Merchant-Ivory, in that it depicts dramatic intrigues among the upper classes and utilizes many of the approaches the producing-directing team is known for: Significant action involves characters on the outside (literally and figuratively) looking in through windows; there’s a piano-playing seduction set-piece straight out of Maurice; and so on. However, there’s also a harder-than-usual edge to the proceedings that the film itself acknowledges from the onset, with a surprisingly graphic prologue where a father has his son and wife summarily executed when the pair are caught inflagrante delicto. The tension of this prologue runs throughout The Golden Bowl. In fact, the prologue is a more extreme variant — from an earlier, less civilized era — of the basic set-up of the plot. Charlotte Stant is a socially connected, but far from wealthy young woman in love with the even more connected, but virtually penniless, Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam, The Winslow Boy). Amerigo breaks off his clandestine affair with Charlotte in order to marry Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale, Pearl Harbor), daughter of “America’s first billionaire,” Adam Verver (Nick Nolte in a brilliantly nuanced performance). Charlotte, however, has other ideas and proceeds to become intertwined in the lives of her ex-lover and Maggie by marrying Adam Verver, which allows her and Amerigo to resume their affair under their respective spouses’ noses. It all sounds simpler than it is, since the subtext of all these relationships is anything but normal. There is an unforced but inescapable hint of an abnormally strong bond between Maggie and her father, and it is this that allows Charlotte and Amerigo to rather easily pair off. The results are an unusually rich film about the gulf between appearance and reality — and how people choose one or the other and deal with them. Like the symbolic golden bowl of the title — a singularly beautiful item unless studied closely, whereupon the tragic flaw of a crack can be seen — this is ultimately a film about choosing what we wish to accept as reality. The theme is hardly new to Merchant-Ivory, making this very much a piece with such works as Maurice and Remains of the Day. What is unique about The Golden Bowl is that the characters are all fully aware of their choices and the faces they wish to put on those choices. Adam Verver is no blindly cuckolded husband. He chooses not to see what he wishes not to see. He opts — at least on the surface — to accept the more pleasant, if utterly staged and bogus, explanation of what has been going on. And when he finally does act to rectify things, he consciously does so by preserving the beautiful surface and overlooking the crack — though not without turning Charlotte into nothing more than a newsreel showcase as his pretty young wife in the bargain. But even Charlotte accepts that role and pretends it is her own choice. In The Golden Bowl, the layers of the characters are peeled away, but in so precise a manner that they can be reassembled and the illusion restored.