A ROOM WITH A VIEW, 1985
In the early years of the 20th century, young Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett, are traveling in Italy. They meet fellow English tourists, the unconventional Mr. Emerson and his son, George, who are staying at their pensione in Florence. Lucy and George are attracted to each other, but Lucy returns to England before anything can come of it. At home, she enters into an engagement with a prim Edwardian gentleman, Cecil Vyse. Fate, in the form of Cecil’s inadvertent meddling, brings the Emersons back into Lucy’s life and she must decide between two very different men and thus very different futures for herself.
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“A Room With a View” provided the producer/director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory with their breakout hit in 1985. They had been making films together, along with their screenwriting partner, Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala, since the early ‘60s, but it was only when they hit upon the formula of the all star literary adaptation that they began to see real success. E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, “A Room With a View”, is concerned with many of the themes that would dominate their films in the years to come - a romantic fascination with the intersection between staid English culture and various other cultures, in this case Italian. Another recurring theme in the Merchant/Ivory canon is the idea that there is often a social, as well as emotional, price to be paid for romantic fulfillment, i.e., “Remains of the Day” (1993) or “The Golden Bowl” (2000), amongst others.
“A Room With a View” is the lightest in tone of any of the Merchant/Ivory productions. It is, as the liner notes to the DVD describe it, “a comedy of manners”, which gently points up the ways in which the emerging modern sensibility of the early 20th century clash with the older cultural assumptions and traditions of the Victorian society it was replacing. That description makes the film sound much more serious than it is. Nonetheless there is a mild social critique at the heart of the film. James Ivory, however, never allows it to overcome his delight in depicting for us, in opulent detail, the very society whose mores are being examined. The beauty of both the Italian countryside, and the contrast to its English counterpart, clearly enthrall the director, and by extension us. There is always the danger of falling into the travelogue trap with these movies, but Ivory, and his screenwriter, Prawer-Jhabvala, largely avoid it by keeping the focus on Forster’s story and its large cast of characters.
The film features a wonderful ensemble cast with some memorable performances by actors who were then newcomers to the screen, as well as numerous British stage veterans. The central role of Lucy Honeychurch is played by Helena Bonham-Carter. It is her first film and it shows. It’s not hard to see why she was cast, however. Physically she is the epitome of Gibson Girl beauty and, just by showing up in a scene, she effortlessly evokes the style of turn of the last century. She nicely captures Lucy’s conventionality in the early scenes in Florence, when she first is exposed to the unconventional Emersons. However, Bonham-Carter seems out of her depth in the second half of the film, when Lucy must confront her true emotions about both George and Cecil. It is an unfocused performance that never really builds or clarifies Lucy’s transition from callow youth to adulthood. Julian Sands, as her aspiring lover, George Emerson, exhibits a rather impassive quality throughout the film that never really matches up with George’s reputation for being impetuous and a nonconformist.
The weaknesses in two of the leads aside, the rest of the cast is superb. In fact, the smooth ensemble work between these pros is the chief reason to re-visit this film. Maggie Smith excels as the fussy spinster, Charlotte Bartlett. It is the kind of role Smith knows well and she is faultless in her dry, deadpan delivery of such lines as, “In my own small way I am a woman of the world and I know where things can lead to...”, when warning Lucy of the romantic dangers lurking in any involvement with a man like George Emerson. Judi Dench, as the romance novelist Eleanor Lavish, is a sly adventurer and she makes the most of the few scenes she is given in Italy.
Daniel Day-Lewis seems to take an arch delight in his characterization of the upper class twit, Cecil Vyse. It is one of his few comic performances, and watching it makes you wish he would do more light roles. As with everything Day-Lewis does, there is an intensity even to Cecil’s silliness. Still, his powerful presence never overwhelms and he has some inspired moments of physical comedy, when, for instance, taking a ball to the head while sanctimoniously reading aloud to the players on the tennis court. As well, Day-Lewis expertly handles Cecil’s reaction to his comeuppance at Lucy’s hands. He shows us a heretofore unsuspected generosity of character in Cecil that allows him to exit gracefully while at the same time delivering a genuinely poignant moment in the film.
James Ivory is clearly entranced with E.M. Forster’s vision of the possibilities for passion inherent in Latin culture as perceived through an Anglo consciousness. The film’s sumptuous depiction of both cultures, the strong cast, as well as the unapologetic use of opera, (Puccini’s O mio babbino caro sung by Kiri Te Kanawa) to heighten the romantic aura of the picture all serve to help successfully translate this well loved novel.
A ROOM WITH A VIEW