Great connections and a keen scenic eye help the Merchant Ivory team find the perfect settings for their latest opulent opus, The Golden Bowl
Todd English/MIP
| Credit: Todd English/MIP

"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 25locations 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."

"Practically speaking, it was a convenient staircase for filming," Ivory says. "Because of the way it branches out into two sides, we could put lamps on one side to light the other. Those stone steps are so wide and strong, the crew could move up and down without endangering the house."

Lady Victoria Leatham, a descendant of William Cecil and the current chatelaine of Burghley, was astonished by the size of the 100-plus crew. "You hear terrible stories about boom mikes crashing into chandeliers," she says. "But everyone was very careful, and we were thrilled with how it all turned out." She does admit to being peeved at not landing a cameo. "All the extras had been chosen before they got to us," Leatham says wistfully. "But by the time you had been squashed into one of those corsets, you probably wouldn't have been able to breathe."

IVORY CHOSE HELMINGHAM HALL TO STAND IN AS Matcham, the moated country house where the clandestine lovers attend a weekend party. He remembered Helmingham from when he scouted locations for The Remains of the Day. Its current inhabitant is the genial and unflappable Lord Tollemache, whose family has lived there for some 600 years.

"If it had been my house and they'd said, 'You're going to have people sliding down the stairs on silver trays,' I'd have been a little nervous," Ivory recalls, referring to a scene of country-house high jinks. "But Tollemache said, 'It's happened so many times, I'm not worried at all.' "

During the first few weeks of shooting, the stars of The Golden Bowl stayed at Hintlesham Hall, a country hotel near Ipswich, in Suffolk. Hintlesham has both superb cuisine and a strict dress code. "The hotel didn't allow the actors in the dining room, because we couldn't be depended on to dress properly for dinner," Huston recalls wryly. (Much to Ivory's surprise, even he was turned away for failing to wear a jacket.) Instead, the cast was assigned a separate "show folks" room, which always filled up quickly. "So one was told that one couldn't have dinner at all," Huston says. "That was very bad news after a fourteen-hour workday, grand homes or no grand homes."

To everyone's amusement, the hotel also seemed incapable of distinguishing among the film's famous names. Huston was tickled to receive a phone message from Ethan Hawke in which the young actor declared his love. (The note was actually intended for Thurman, Hawke's wife.)

After the comedy of errors at Hintlesham Hall, the traveling players moved on to Stapleford Park hotel, a luxurious country house near Belvoir Castle (pronounced "beaver"). Its legendary picture gallery, with its Holbein portrait of Henry VIII, was used as an interior for Fawns. When they arrived, the Bombay-born Merchant, 64, appeared to exert his famously persuasive charm to ensure that feathers would remain unruffled. And in a traditional act of Merchant Ivory diplomacy, he also cooked up one of his celebrated curries for the troupe. "Ismail's curries are always part of his pitches to the actors, to help persuade us to do the movie," says Nick Nolte, who previously starred in the team's Jefferson in Paris. "We all buy into it," he says with a chuckle, "because James and Ismail are tremendous to work with."

Like Hitchcock, Merchant enjoys making occasional cameo appearances in his own films. Huston recalls being startled when the beatific producer showed up as an extra at a fancy ball, dressed as an Indian potentate in "full maharajah jewels. We're not talking paste." She was clearly impressed by the dazzling array of vintage rubies and emeralds, on loan from Spinks in London. "Ismail basically had the Taj Mahal around his neck!"

Merchant is amused by Huston's astonishment at his rented finery. "Ah, you see," he says, laughing, "Merchant Ivory goes to great lengths for authenticity."

Burghley House Near Stamford, Lincolnshire; 44-1780/752-451; Open for guided tours weekdays 11 a.m.—4:30 p.m. through October 7.

Belvoir Castle Near Grantham, Lincolnshire; 44-1476/870-262, fax 44-1476/870-443; Open to the public through October.

Helmingham Hall Near Stowmarket, Suffolk; 44-1473/890-597, fax 44-1473/890-776; Gardens and deer park (but not the 1510 Tudor house) open to the public every Sunday 2 p.m.—6 p.m. through September.