The day that Merchant Ivory Costume Drama Inc runs out of novels by Messrs Forster and James, its Board Of Nostalgics (producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) will have to hang up their corsets, breathe out for the first time in years, and leave for starched retirement in Venice, Paris, or some other picture-postcard leftover from the Grand Tour. The present scares them like the plague, while their scrutiny of the elitist, solipsistic world of turn-of-the-century "society'' lost its bite a long time ago.
Now the novelty's over, it's difficult to engage, let alone sympathise with protagonists who treat "work" like a dirty word and who flit from one vacuous "engagement" to another with all the imagination and vigour of a tankful of fish. When, in this film, society tongues start wagging at Amerigo's sexual shenanigans with Charlotte, one defender says: "Don't forget the man is in a position where he has nothing in the world to do". Indeed. So who gives a shit?
There's no denying the perverse intrigue generated by this unlikely family, with old man Verver, despite marriage to the nubile Charlotte, disturbingly obsessed with his daughter, and Charlotte and Amerigo, the wildest mother and son-in-law in town, flaunting themselves at lavish parties. And Nolte is great as the only character with a work ethic, the industrialist who dreams of creating a museum of European art in his hick town.
If you can overcome the déjà vu, Charlotte's fate as just another item in Verver's European collection ready for shipping to America is genuinely tragic. Sadly, Uma Thurman's manic delivery (has she done anything good since Pulp Fiction?) turns Charlotte into such a harpy that you'd gladly hammer a few nails into the packing crate yourself.
Fine performances from Nolte and Northam sweeten the bitter pill of yet another pointless foray into antique social mores, from a team who should have stopped at Howards End. A movie full of people who need a good slapping.