Headline: A true modern classic by team Merchant Ivory
Synopsis: When Lucy Honeychurch and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett find themselves in Florence with rooms without views, fellow guests Mr. Emerson and son George step in to remedy the situation. Meeting the Emersons could change Lucy’s life forever but, once back in England, how will her experiences in Tuscany affect her marriage plans? (IMDB)
Starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, and Denholm Eliott
Writer: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Director: James Ivory
Rating: G (Canada)
Running Time: 117mins
There was a time when Merchant Ivory was not a designation for prestige period pieces. They were just Ismael Merchant and James Ivory, a producer and a director of small and very independent films with a long partnership that spawned over 2 decades before their first real success with A Room With a View. To be completely honest theirs was a three-way partnership that included Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the brilliant writer behind much of their films, including Howards End, The Remains of the Day and of course A Room with a View. They had a streak of brilliant and successful films that started with A Room with a View and cemented their name – and their designation. All period pieces adapted from great novels of the English literature and with the best actors living in the United Kingdom at the time.
The story here is quite simple: Lucy (Carter) and her aunt Charlotte (Smith) travel to Florence where they are promised a room with a view of the river. Unfortunately, they end up getting a room with a view of the back alley, nothing remotely close to the romanticism Lucy was expecting of her first trip to Italy. While complaining about it at dinner, another guest of the hotel offers to swipe his room with a view for hers. Mr. Emerson (Eliott) affirms he and his son George (Julian Sands) don’t care about the view, and after much insistence, and with the help of the reverend (Simon Callow) the exchange is made.
Lucy and George start feeling attracted to each other and end up sharing a kiss. Before they can even understand what is happening between them, Charlotte interrupts and she and Lucy go back to England where Lucy accepts a marriage proposal from Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis). But the Emersons end up moving close to Lucy’s country estate and she can’t deny her feelings for George anymore.
There’s no much story happening here. And in the same way, there is so much going on. A Room With a View is a portrait of the beginning of the 20thcentury and the changes taking place in English society. The Honeychurchs are upper middle class and snobbish, even Lucy. They don’t understand modernity and people like the Emersons, free thinkers with no real care for the rules of society. But on the other hand, they are also really bothered by Cecil, the most uptight person imaginable, or even Charlotte, two perfect examples of the worst part of being held on to the expected behavior. So where should they stand? The funny thing here is that we are watching the end of that era from the inside and the characters are just beginning to realize they can’t stay living by ancient laws of behavior. They still don’t know how to break away from it, they are not even aware they can’t stand it anymore, but they are totally bored by the way things are. And that is hilarious.
Lucy, in particular, is the one most in need of clearance; she is blind to her true feelings for George and stays in denial for a good part of the film. It’s quite ironic that she is so eager to see beauty from her hotel room and can’t identify true love even when it is standing right in front of her. If she can’t realize the beauty of love how can she enjoy anything else? But she can’t look away forever and eventually embraces that love with much passion. The last shot of the film is quite romantic in its own way, and not just because of the beauty of the framing: the two characters only have eyes for each other; it seems to say that when we are looking at our loved ones even the most beautiful and photogenic Florence view takes second place to our eyes. Can you imagine anything more romantic than that?
One of the most brilliant aspects of A Room with a View is the way it fills the inner lives of its characters with, well, life. Charlotte is single and alone but in her later scenes one can sense she had loved in her life – passionately even – and it didn’t end well. We never know what happened in her story, but it doesn’t matter; emotionally we totally understand her and that makes her such a richer character. The same goes for Cecil; he’s so uptight he seems like a robot sometimes. But when Lucy ends her engagement we finally see in his face exactly why she meant so much to him; she was his conductor into normalcy. She would humanize him, something he is not capable of doing alone.
The way (the very young) Day-Lewis portrays that realization is heartbreakingly sad. Speaking of Day-Lewis, he wasn’t anywhere near the fame he would experience a few years later; actually, he was quite unknown when he got his chance with Cecil and what he does here is brilliant. Between his numbness, his total incapability of behaving normally and that break-up scene, you can’t take your eyes off of him in any scene he’s in. Lewis is known for his method acting and his deep dramatic performances but he’s a comedic genius in this film. The scene where he fights the bee alone would already be a standout but everything he does here is amazing.
Ivory is an excellent director of actors and they all deliver. Smith was perfect to play Charlotte; she creates such a delicious character and gives us a few of the traits we would later recognize – a love – in all of her future characters; Eliott gives an understated, astute and effective performance as Mr. Emerson and Sands is quite dreamy as George. George is the opposite of Lucy; he doesn’t say a lot during the film and seems quite distracted and disinterested in times. But he’s actually quite focused and concentrated.
George is enjoying life and taking everything in. He doesn’t want to miss a thing – and you can only do so when you stop talking and look around. The cast is so amazing that it even has Judi Dench in a great supporting role, years and years before her breakout with Mrs. Brown. Heading the cast is Bonham Carter and her fierce personality was already commanding at a very young age. Lucy goes through a great transformation during the film and Bonham Carter manages it with ease.
Finally, A Room with a View is such a romantic and delicious film to watch, you can do it over and over again. It’s solar, it’s inspiring, and you can almost smell the flowers from the other side of the screen. It’s so beautifully done in every aspect one can almost forget it cost close to nothing – and it is a period piece! What an amazing film.
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