There are moments in the picture-making business capable of producing little jabs of pleasure for which only the artistry of cinema is intimately acquainted. Two that immediately come to mind derive from James Ivory’s richly absorbing A Room with a View (1985); the sight of an almost orgasmic, George Emerson (Julian Sands), usually brooding, impetuous – and sexually frustrated – toppling out of an olive tree while declaring his creed (‘Beauty! Joy! Love!’) to the entire Arno Valley; the other, an equally as ebullient George, in his less articulate, though no less potent, declaration of virulent youth, prancing about Sacred Lake with his berries and twig exposed. The former scene is preceded by a rhapsodic carriage ride through the Florentine countryside, its untamed summer foliage lazily swaying against the stifling noonday sun. George, as his father (Denholm Elliott) before him, epitomizes this sultrily satisfying wild abandonment; an affront to the socially repressed Edwardian upper crust noblesse oblige left behind in England. Yet, even upon their return to Kent, George cannot entirely shed the life-altering experiences of Florence; invested in a Neolithic testament to defy the modern British gentleman, stripped bare and splashing about along with Freddie Honeychurch (Rupert Graves) and clergyman, Mr. Beebe (Simon Callow). Alas, the revelers are found out, much to the cultured, Lucy Honeychurch’s (Helena Bonham-Carter) general amusement, but very much distasteful to her fiancée, the priggish, Cecil Vyes’ (Daniel Day-Lewis). The Emersons are an anathema to Cecil and Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith); the crusty but benign Aunt, sent to Florence as chaperone for the sexually repressed, but about to burgeon, Lucy.
A Room with a View is, of course, Merchant-Ivory’s glowing tribute to E.M. Forster’s celebrated novel, the first of three cinematic excursions exploring the English caste system to peel back universal points of interest; young love, its surrender to lust, and, marital alliances made out of time-honored propriety. Florence challenges and changes Lucy. It also forces her Aunt Charlotte to question these rigid social etiquettes. Charlotte’s muse is Miss Lavish (Judy Dench), the authoress of erotically charged romance novels at a time when women are expected to maintain their equilibrium as decorous appendages to their male counterparts. Withstanding, or even questioning, the ridiculousness of these mores, dictating not only behavior, but also the future prospects for proper young ladies of substance is frankly discouraged, especially by the Reverend Mr. Eager (Patrick Godfrey), who cannot abide even a Florentine coachman’s innocent amours in his presence.
A Room with a View is perhaps, Merchant-Ivory’s most perfect ‘first’ bite at the Forsterian apple, what, with its heterogeneous themes loosely dedicated to a sensual reawakening, by far Forster’s most optimistic view of love, coupled with a highly humorous critique of the entrenched beliefs destined to ruin a young girl, or at the very least, her chance at happiness. All evidence to the contrary, as Charlotte – intent on hearing the rest of Miss Lavish’s lurid tale about one such lass spoilt by her fiery rendezvous with a foreigner – inadvertently encourages Lucy to go in search of Mr. Beebe and the Emersons. Charlotte, of course, cannot fathom, at least momentarily, how she will have set these fates to conspire anew in a most ardent, but ultimately failed flagrante delicto between Lucy and George. It seems only the sight of Lucy can divert George from his preposterous questioning of the ‘everlasting why’ amidst a field of waist-high grain, majestically swaying in the breeze; Lucy, in her virginal white bonnet and floor-length gown, stirring primal urges from within that manifest in an assault on her person with a barrage of fanatical caresses; placing his lips full upon hers. Later, Lucy will coax her betrothed, Cecil Vyes to pursue a similar path to her heart near Sacred Lake. Yet, her expectations, already satisfied by George, are cruelly denied when Cecil politely asks for the kiss, then fumbles this already dwindled eroticism by allowing his pince-nez to get in the way.
Lucy is mildly amused by Cecil’s awkwardness, though increasingly she comes to regard it as an offense to her brief ardor with George. This, she repeatedly denies, lying to everyone, though chiefly to herself about the importance of the physical in a relationship, particularly in a time and culture where, presumably, more cerebral thoughts are meant to dominate and dictate the future. Forster’s contrast between these dynamic and static characters reveals his own dissatisfaction with the artifice of polite society. Published in 1908, A Room with a View so obviously chafes against England’s conservative present and medieval past, Forster adopting a proto-renaissance world view that tugs at the yoke of England’s already decaying morality. Despite her initial misgivings, Lucy Honeychurch will yield to the present, discarding the past, and pointing the way to the future; becoming the personification of this new, if as yet impressionable generation of young women, buoyed by a burgeoning self-awareness that stands apart from centuries of patriarchal antiquity. Manifesting a desire to rid England of its straight-jacketed ethics, Forster concludes A Room with a View by having Lucy choose for herself. She picks George, at intervals, lying to Cecil, Aunt Charlotte, her own mother (Rosemary Leach) and even, Mr. Beebe (arguably, the most tolerant of the progressives), to procure and perpetuate this scrap of satisfaction.
As with the novel, the cinematic incarnation of A Room with a View is inspired by contrasts; faithfully adhered to by screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and, more concretely visualized in Brian Ackland-Snow/Gianni Quaranta’s production design, majestically photographed by cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts. “As is always the case with pictures of quality,” producer, Ismail Merchant would later muse, “It was difficult to get funding for such a project”, the backers, cajoled, manipulated and/or coaxed from their initial apprehensions by Merchant’s own luxuriating self-confidence; also his ability to make promises to maintain an impeccable level of artistic integrity, hard-pressed to discover elsewhere in the film-making business. As a youth, director, James Ivory had come very near to crossing paths with Forster; his elation turned to nervous anticipation, and finally relegated to the dust bins of disappointment when, at the very last moment, Forster’s failing health forced a cancellation of their prearranged luncheon appointment. “I was relieved in a way,” Ivory would later admit, “What would I have said to him…really, what could I have added?”
A Room with a View is undeniably the recipient of both Merchant and Ivory’s absolute devotion to Forster’s novel – not, slavishly so, however, as no novel enriched by such lofty ideals can ever faithfully be brought to the screen unaltered and/or unscathed by the concreteness of its visual design. Yet, Merchant’s zest for robust elegance and Ivory’s subtle approach to both the humor and pathos of the piece have yielded an immaculate incarnation of both the novel and the period, extoling both its strengths and its vices. Pre-production on A Room with A View began with scouting locations; finding most, though not all of the requirements to satisfy amidst the rustic and sunbaked villas of Italy, and later, the cultured gardens of Foxwold, a large, many-gabled house built in 1883 for the London solicitor, Horace Pym. If nothing else, A Room with a View would already be a living testament to Foxwold in all its glory; the estate decimated by a hurricane in 1991 and stripped clean of the heavily forested hundred-year-old trees. Sacred Lake, man-made for the movie, has not since survived the years either; its uneven basin punctured by the storm, drained and lying dormant as an ‘elephant graveyard’ of uprooted tree stumps. “We had been promised the water would be heated,” Simon Callow would later recall, “And indeed, a pump and heater had been brought in. But when we dove in, the shock of those decidedly Icelandic currents was enough to startle even the bravest of free spirits. We didn’t playfully hop about to play the scene. We leapt in a frantic succession of volleys to distract ourselves from the extreme cold.”
A Room with a View is a veritable feast and a celebration of contrasting imagery; the stark and shadowy, tightly woven, stone-lined streets of Florence, occasionally giving way to sunlit expansive courtyards in the Piazza della Signoria or cavernous interiors of the church of Santa Croce. These monuments to the Renaissance are pitted against the stately, yet more reserved English Tudor landscapes; stuffy drawing rooms, cluttered in Edwardian bric-a-brac, festooned with heavy drapes to blot out the already anemic sun. Italy becomes the burgeoning wonderland where all sexual repressions are exiled. But it is also an inferno where jealousy between swarthy male suitors transgresses quite unexpectedly from passion into murder. Lucy’s introduction to this exhilaratingly unpredictable furnace of humanity is both cruel yet defining. Before Florence, Lucy might have found a reasonable facsimile of definable contentment with Cecil, if only he knew exactly where to place his awkward hands. After Florence, Cecil’s mawkish and preening contempt for those he considers as underlings has no place in which to warm, or even stir Lucy’s heart. Hence, Lucy’s arrival in England after George’s unanswered kiss in the fields does not equate to a return to her former self, only a growing dissatisfaction with the demure woman she once believed herself to be, but now finds quite unsuitable to settle for anything less than raw passion in her life.
In the novel, Forster makes much of discussing the difference between ‘rooms’ and ‘views’; the former, symbolic of the cloistered and conservative, the latter, denoting a more liberated cast of social misfits. The Emersons are, in fact, unlike most any other family the Honeychurches have known, except, perhaps the Honeychurches themselves. George’s free-spiritedness even hints at one-sided homoeroticism for Lucy’s brother, Freddie, the uninhibited instigator of their nude bathing at Sacred Lake. Luring Mr. Beebe into their playtime adds a false air of overt masculine ‘respectability’ to their impetuousness, as Beebe, with or without his clothes on, undeniably remains the saintly cleric, if only momentarily chagrined in his compunction to partake in their adolescent dalliance. And yet, there is a distinct androgyny to George’s good nature, simply inferred by Julian Sands’ sly-eyed performance, a more insinuate pleasure. Even when George grips and gropes Lucy with impromptu familiarity – first, in Florence, then again at her familial home, Windy Corners – even then, his expressive ardor is more dictated by the primal urge all healthy young men arguably feel, and even more remarkably, bravely – stupidly ambitious – in all its defiance to be expressed just a few feet away from where, at any moment, George might easily be discovered by Cecil, Aunt Charlotte or even Mrs. Honeychurch.
After a magnificent main title, set to opera diva, Kiri Te Kanawa’s rendition of ‘O mio babbino caro’ – heard several times elsewhere – the movie begins with the first of eight titles cards designed by artist, Chris Allies and based on actual frescoes and artwork in Florence. Each introduces us to a pivotal chapter in the lives of our protagonists. Although several reviewers at the time were quick to criticize Merchant-Ivory for these inserts, suggesting they took viewers out of the story, the title cards actually pays homage to chapter headings in Forster’s novel and are employed in the film more for concision than demarcation, skillfully advancing the narrative timeline. At the start, we meet Lucy Honeychurch, a lissome girl on holiday from Surrey with her much older Aunt Charlotte Bartlett as her chaperone. Charlotte is conventionally ‘English’; or, that is to say, incredibly rigid and incapable of relating to others more passionate than she. Her greatest weapon against the changing social mores of the early 20th century is her manipulative good nature, seemingly accommodating, but in fact, highly purposeful in employing a modicum of guilt to get others to see things her way.
Because the Honeychurches are more laissez faire in their world view than most, Lucy has fewer inhibitions than Charlotte and mildly detests her Aunt’s frequent interventions in their plans and burgeoning friendships. The ladies register at a small pensione where they have been promised ‘a room with a view’. Regrettably, their windows overlook a cluttered byway of red roofs and clothes lines. Lucy is pleasantly surprised to see the Reverend Beebe, who is also on holiday and staying at their pensione. At dinner, Charlotte and Lucy meet the two Miss Alans, Catherine (Fabia Drake) and Teresa (Joan Henley); spinsters who, interestingly, lack Charlotte’s stiff moral backbone and are more receptive to the pleasures that surround. Also at table are the author, Miss Eleanor Lavish and the nonconformists, Mr. Emerson and his fine-looking, philosophical son, George. Charlotte is mildly appalled by Mr. Emerson’s gregarious nature; the elder offering Charlotte and Lucy the rooms they currently occupy, precisely because they do come with a breath-taking view of the city. The Emersons are indicative of a new forward-thinking principle, most eager to abandon the middle-class prudery associated with the Victorian age. This concept is foreign to Lucy, at first. But it remains utterly abhorrent to Charlotte who views the Emersons’ progressive mantras as the epitome of uncouth behavior, most unbecoming of English gentlemen.
Lucy is most enthusiastic to explore the city without Charlotte’s influence. While playing the piano in the parlor, Lucy is confronted by Mr. Emerson who hints that she might take an interest in George. “If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays,” Rev. Beebe speculates, “…it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.” Later, as Lucy visits the church of Santa Croce, she again encounters Mr. Emerson who, more directly, suggests George desperately needs a good woman to free his mind from its melancholia. Lucy is mildly put off by Mr. Emerson’s obvious match-making. But later, she is mildly amused when George, who is assailed by the same impertinent ‘guide’ (Mirio Guidelli) she could barely rid herself of only after many protestations, suddenly drops to his knees, professing to be deep in prayer; a simple solution that discourages the guide from continuing his boorish inquiries. Leaving church, Lucy ventures into the Piazza della Signoria, entranced by its sexually suggestive statuary. There, she witnesses a confrontation between two male suitors, obviously fighting for the affections of a peasant girl. When one of the men (Luigi di Fiori) is stabbed to death before her very eyes, the resultant chaos and sight of his spilt blood causes Lucy to faint. She is spared the embarrassment of a complete collapse by George, who gallantly carries her to relative safety. She is grateful, but, remembering Mr. Emerson’s imposition, eager to get away from George at the earliest possible convenience. George calls her bluff, however, and Lucy is momentarily shamed for thinking less of him because of what his father has said. The two share an afternoon stroll and get to know one another better. Lucy finds George attractive, only now for much more than just his physical attributes.
Meanwhile, Charlotte and Miss Lavish fast form a bond, mostly predicated on Charlotte’s repressed fascination with this epicurean’s profession as an author of sensual romance novels; also, eager to glean even more shocking gossip from her traveling companion while they go on a walking tour. The Rev. Eager arranges for a carriage ride through the Tuscan countryside; Lucy, Charlotte, Miss Lavish, Mr. Beebe, and, the Emersons partaking in the journey to a remote villa. However, the button-downed Eager is frankly appalled by the coachman’s (Peter Munt) amorous affections toward his traveling companion, a comely peasant girl (Isabella Celani), whom he makes the coachman abandon on the side of the road. At the villa, the group separates; George, his father and Mr. Beebe wandering off towards an olive grove where an ecstatic George climbs a tree and shouts his creed into the heavens, before losing his footing and tumbling to the ground. Meanwhile, Charlotte, Lucy and Miss Lavish take a picnic lunch in the clearing near the forest. When Miss Lavish pauses in telling her explicit tale of a young girl fallen from grace, Charlotte employs her wily charm to shoo the Lucy away, suggesting she go in search of the others. Lucy is no fool, but obliges Charlotte, making her inquiries to the coachman. In turn, either intentionally or ‘un’, the coachman takes Lucy to George, who is brooding in a field of waist-high grain; her sudden appearance causing him to launch into an unanticipated, and rather aggressive seduction, thwarted at the last possible moment by Charlotte, who has come in search of her charge.
Believing Lucy’s mother will blame her for allowing the ‘incident’ to occur, as a kiss from any young man is usually a prelude to a proposal of marriage, in order to preserve the young lady’s reputation, Charlotte uses guilt to swear Lucy into silence. However, a short while later, an account of their moment together winds up in Miss Lavish’s latest romance novel, clearly illustrating that while Lucy has kept her promise to Charlotte, Charlotte has had absolutely no compunction about gossiping it away to Miss Lavish. Although the names have been changed, Lucy clearly recognizes the event in Miss Lavish’s novel as her own story. But by now, she has accepted a proposal of marriage from Cecil Vyes; a man of excellent breeding, but alas, possessing no spark of romantic chemistry with which to woo a fine young girl like Lucy. She finds Cecil’s lack of amorous experience somewhat charming – at first. He cannot even kiss her properly without fumbling his pince-nez. But gradually, Cecil begins to reveal himself as a terrible prig; opinionated and devious - even going over Lucy’s head after she has already written to the Miss Allens of an available vacancy in town, encouraging the Emersons to let the house instead. Worse, Lucy’s brother, Freddie, has decided to befriend George; inviting him to bathe at Sacred Lake – a secluded spot off the beaten path. The pair is accompanied by Mr. Beebe; all three electing to strip bare and partake in a liberating splash. Unhappy circumstance, Cecil has decided to take Mrs. Honeychurch and Lucy for a stroll into the forest; the trio coming upon George, Freddie and Mr. Beebe in all their stark nakedness.
Once again thrust in close proximity with the man she so evidently finds the more desirable, Lucy embarks upon a series of lies to discourage George’s advances and keep Cecil’s suspicions at bay. However, she is unsuccessful at remaining clear-headed about George. At Freddie’s behest, George becomes a frequent guest to their Tudor home, thus creating even more sexual friction Lucy finds increasingly intolerable. As George has wisely deduced he cannot go on merely pretending to be Lucy’s friend, when he desires so much more, and has as shrewdly deduced she imparts similar affections towards him, he eventually confronts Lucy in the presence of her mother, plainly stating his position. “Cecil is the sort who can't know anyone intimately, least of all a woman. He doesn't know what a woman is. He wants you for a possession, something to look at, like a painting or an ivory box. Something to own and to display. He doesn't want you to be real, and to think and to live. He doesn't love you. But I love you. I want you to have your own thoughts and ideas and feelings, even when I hold you in my arms.”
Lucy breaks off her engagement to Cecil. But she also refuses George, instead making plans to rejoin the Miss Allans in Athens. Determined to seek out his own peace of mind, George also makes plans to go abroad. As the Emersons begin to pack up their house, Lucy makes a stopover at Mr. Beebe’s. She is surprised to discover Mr. Emerson there, ailing from an undisclosed malady. He implores Lucy to reconsider her journey. She is leaving England, not because her engagement to Cecil is at an end, but to mask and hopefully forget her truer feelings for George. Mr. Emerson will not allow her to run away without pleading his son’s case and Lucy, tearful and repentant, suddenly realizes she cannot set aside her feelings for George any longer. She loves him – desperately, deeply and, for the first time, much more than even she had anticipated possible. Racing to her mother’s carriage outside, Lucy confesses the truth. We dissolve to a scene in which Charlotte reads a letter from Lucy in Florence; she and George, staying at the same pensione as marrieds on their honeymoon, encountering the same ‘types’ of English tourists seated around the dinner table. The movie ends with Lucy and George locked in a passionate embrace, their love for one another obscuring their room with a view, overlooking the Belvedere.
A Room with a View is an exquisitely lush and romantic movie, as fragrant as a cask of fresh wine sampled off the Tuscan vineyards and as satisfying as that delicious stimulant imbued with Forsterian principles; a vivid and deepening showcase for the pitfalls and paths to true love, despite the many roadblocks that persist. The cast is superb, particularly Helena Bonham-Carter as the burgeoning ingénue. At only the age of 19, Bonham-Carter reveals a startling articulateness, perfectly in keeping with her character. We can sense the wheels of Lucy’s mind at work behind those oddly expressive eyes, at once capable of piercing, as daggers, the balloons of hypocrisy or with equal dollops of tenderness, beckoning a lover into her embrace. There is a profound self-awareness to the actress that spills over into her characterization. Alas, in the pivotal moment in which Mr. Emerson makes his final plea for Lucy to love his son, Bonham-Carter was incapable of tears – at first; Ismail Merchant later recalling how it took more than a few takes and some preparation to get the actress into the mood. In hindsight, Lucy is the key to A Room with a View’s believability. A lesser actress and the film simply falls apart, lost in a closeted array of mores and manners but without a genuine soul to guide the audience through this caste system.
Julian Sands and Daniel Day-Lewis, both appearing for the first time on celluloid, are superb romantic foils for our Lucy Honeychurch; the former, making up for his apparent lack of social graces with a defiant and volatile sexuality; the latter, seemingly incapable of even quantifying – much less, expressing – any concept of desire beyond the evidence gleaned from Miss Lavish’s latest novel, thereafter pompously dismissed and later, condemned as unsatisfactory tripe. Interestingly, and upon going deeper than mere surface appeal, neither fellow is ideally the man for Lucy, though E.M. Forster, and indeed, Merchant and Ivory’s compasses are pointed in their preference toward George Emerson over Cecil Vyes. And yet, Lucy is, apart from her own stubborn will (which is considerable) and mind (equally as prepossessing), a lady of quality. George introduces her to passion – ergo, sex. But will this earthy pursuit alone be enough to satisfy once Lucy’s realm of experiences in the amorous arts has been sufficiently broadened? Can a life together truly be built upon such a shaky and ephemeral foundation? Fair enough, Forster’s novel – as the movie – is disinterested with what happens next in Miss Honeychurch’s evolution into a woman. But the question mark remains, as critical as George’s ‘everlasting why?’ even as we fade out on George and Lucy locked in each other’s arms.
Virtually all of the actors appearing in A Room with a View would go on to have very lucrative movie careers afterward, a testament to Merchant-Ivory’s prowess in expertly casting their production with rising talent destined to make a splash. Viewed today, A Room with a View is somewhat eclipsed by the later studio product from this ‘little independent that could’; Howards End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993) and the, as yet, inexplicably MIA on home video, Maurice (1987) – a shockingly progressive study in homosexual love, doomed to implode under the rigid social conventions of the times. Indeed, the novel, Maurice, written by Forster in 1914 was considered so salacious it was suppressed from publication until after the author’s death in 1970. It seems kismet has also denied the movie version its’ place of recognition. Given Criterion Home Video’s penchant for revisiting Howards End in hi-def and now, its reissue of A Room with a View (previously made available in a deplorably lacking 1080i transfer from BBC Home Video), one can perhaps, or at least, sincerely hope Maurice too will resurface on home video and be recognized as a work of fine-wrought movie art.
For now, we turn our attentions to A Room with a View from Criterion; a very impressive 4K remaster, utilizing every available bit of space on this Blu-ray disc to bring forth cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts’ subtly nuanced visuals with a vibrancy and clarity as yet unseen. I had sincerely forgotten the gorgeousness of this movie; having only seen A Room with a View theatrically once and long ago. Prepare to be amazed by this disc’s color density. Likewise, contrast is bang on, the image sufficiently scrubbed of its age-related anomalies, while preserving the original patina of grain essential to creating a very film-like home viewing presentation. Fine detail is startling in hair, flesh and fabrics, particularly in close-up. It’s as though the television screen suddenly becomes a window into this other world of beautiful, joy and love. Better still is this Blu-ray’s DTS-HD 2.0 stereo, subtly improved and positively glowing with the strains of Richard Robbins underscore – also, the classic arias interpolated throughout.
Last, but not least, there are the extras to reconsider and cherish. Criterion gives us two new documentaries produced by them; the 22 min. Thought and Passion with recollections from James Ivory and Tony Pierce-Roberts, also costume-designer, John Bright; the second, The Eternal Yes with Helena Bonham Carter, Simon Callow, and Julian Sands, running just a little over a half hour. We lose the audio commentary from Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Simon Callow that accompanied the European release of A Room with a View, presumably due to a rights issue; also, absent are the BBC interviews with Daniel Day-Lewis and Simon Callow, although these were heavily truncated on the BBC Blu-ray as well. But Criterion has retained the all too brief and superfluous ‘news’ story covering the film’s American success, first broadcast in 1987 on NBC Nightly News. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer and an essay by movie critic, John Pymh. Bottom line: a must have! Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)