"It has two working drawbridges, and they're pulled up every night," James Ivory says, marveling at the architectural idiosyncrasies of Helmingham Hall, in Suffolk, England. "The same family has lived here for twenty generations, so the house has the atmosphere of all the stuff they've accumulated over centuries. You could never re-create that in a studio." This 16th-century moated manor is one of 25 locations chosen for the new Merchant Ivory adaptation of The Golden Bowl, Henry James's 1904 novel about illicit passion, betrayal, and love's bittersweet triumph.
Set in England and Italy at the dawn of the 20th century, The Golden Bowl tells the tale of Adam Verver, a wealthy American widower, and his impressionable daughter, Maggie, who discover that their new spouses have been carrying on a secret affair together. True to form, the filmmaking duo of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant have selected a sumptuous array of locations for the movie, places befitting the lifestyle of Anglophile art collector Verver and his gilded circle.
"Making the film was like a private tour of the great houses of England, with a little work on the side," jokes Anjelica Huston, who plays Fanny, the lovers' disapproving confidante. The all-star cast also includes Nick Nolte as Adam Verver; Uma Thurman as Verver's wife, Charlotte; Jeremy Northam as Prince Amerigo, Charlotte's lover; and Kate Beckinsale as Maggie, Verver's daughter and Amerigo's adoring wife.
To find locations for the 12-week shoot, Ivory scoured the English countryside in the spring of 1999 with the film's executive producer, Paul Bradley, and award-winning production designer Andrew Sanders. "We wanted to conjure the look of paintings by Sargent and Whistler," Sanders recalls, "and the light and feeling of earlier canvases by Tissot."
For Ivory, making such exploratory trips has been a favorite pastime since he first visited Europe, at age 21, after studying architecture at the University of Oregon. "Over the years, you build up a file of places that strike you," says Ivory, 71. "They can be restaurants, museums, whatever—you never forget their atmosphere. You're always looking for the genuine article, the place that conveys what the story calls for."
IVORY'S LOCATION SEARCH ALSO BROUGHT HIM TO Italy to shoot flashback scenes of a handsome Renaissance-era prince being caught flagrante delicto with his father's young wife. The lovers are dragged off by spear-wielding guards, to be stabbed and beheaded. Fans of Merchant Ivory's genteel approach shouldn't worry that the duo has embraced gratuitous Tarantino-style violence: the noble fornicator turns out to be the son of an ancestor of Amerigo's, that impecunious Italian prince who marries Maggie even though he is romantically entwined with his new stepmother-in-law.
"We wanted a place that looked as though it had dungeons," Sanders recalls. For any other film company, it might be a stretch to find a medieval house equipped with the requisite torture chamber, as well as owners amenable to being overrun by a film crew. But Marcantonio Borghese, Merchant Ivory's production manager for Italy, turned out to be impeccably connected. Palazzo Borghese, his family's villa in Artena, proved ideal in conjunction with Castello Massimo, an ancient fortress in Arsoli with intriguingly grim dungeons. "We ultimately chose Massimo because it's a medieval castle on top of a hill, surrounded by mountains, with wonderful views that haven't been developed," Ivory remembers.
Most of the scenes at Fawns, Adam Verver's rented English country estate, were shot at Burghley House, a 250-room mansion in Lincolnshire that was completed in 1587 for William Cecil, lord treasurer to Elizabeth I and the first Lord Burghley. "I wanted him to have a place with pinnacles," says Ivory, referring to the dignified forest of turrets, cupolas, and spires that grace the roof of Burghley House. "It's the sort of thing that would appeal to American taste at the time." An enthusiastic collector of picture and history books, Ivory discovered the house several years ago, in a catalogue of Burghley's treasures he found at a Santa Barbara museum bookshop.
Several emotionally charged scenes between Verver and his wife, Charlotte (a beautiful, conniving blonde), were filmed on the steps of Burghley's imposing Hell Staircase. The ceilings were painted in the late 17th century by Antonio Verrio, and depict souls writhing in picturesque torment. The murals turn out to be an apt metaphor for Charlotte's descent into despair when her stepson-in-law breaks off their affair. "Don't you understand?" asks Amerigo. "I love my wife."