Enchanting from beginning to end. –Rogert Ebert
Merchant Ivory productions, one of the oldest indie film companies, has produced many smart, beautiful pictures on a small budget: Maurice, Howard’s End, The Mystic Masseur, The White Countess, etc. My personal favorite is A Room with a View from 1985; it was shot in Florence, Italy and county Kent in England. It is based on a book by E.M. Forster, regarded as one of England’s most tolerant, sensitive writers. I have the 2 disc special edition DVD; the film was digitally re-mastered in 2003. Helena Bonham Carter was an unknown actress before A Room with a View. Sadly, James Ivory’s business (and life) partner, Ismail Merchant, passed away last year.
Plot and Characterization
At the opening of the film, Lucy Honeychurch (Bonham Carter), a British upper-middle class young lady, is on vacation in Italy with her cautious/irritating single aunt, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). The ladies happen upon Lucy’s pastor from home, the Reverend Mr. Beebe (Simon Callow). There is also a romance novelist, Eleanor Lavish (Judy Dench) at the hotel. Lucy is especially struck by a very unorthodox father and son- Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) and George (Julian Sands).
Charlotte wants to stick to what the guidebooks say, but Ms. Lavish convinces her to be more independent. Though the Emersons are British, they have their own way of looking at the world; they speak what they feel. Lucy is surprised by, but also curious about the handsome, yet brooding George. Through circumstances, or fate, Lucy and George are thrown together.
When Lucy gets home to England, she gets engaged to wealthy, uptight Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis). You can suppose they had been courting for a long time. Her family, including little brother Freddie (a very young Rupert Graves), think Lucy can do better. Lucy is uncertain about her choice, too. Into their quiet neighborhood come two new tenants- the Emersons!
I can’t believe this movie came out 23 years ago- it always looks fresh and new whenever I see it! At first, it comes off as a simple love story. But when you look deeper, you see the conflict between the natural (an individual’s true feelings/desires) and artificial (British society of the early 1900s). Howard’s End (starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and Bonham Carter) and Maurice (starring the young Hugh Grant and James Wilby) also deal directly with this conflict. The two men Lucy must choose between personify this conflict.
Cecil is a well-read young man, but he behaves like a stuck-up old man incapable of enjoying life. Day-Lewis shows his character’s discomfort by doing every little thing very stiffly. His costumes are very formal and tight-fitting, purposefully no doubt. Mr. Beebe even suggests that Cecil is the type of man who will remain a bachelor. Hmmm…
George is quiet and mysterious at first, but later we see he is full of life and very real. He’s blunt in contrast to the other people Lucy is familiar with. When he moves to Kent, he becomes a friend to Freddie. In one hilarious scene the two young men (along with Mr. Beebe) go bathing naked in a pond. George is comfortable in nature; he doesn’t know how to be not real, as his father points out to Lucy in a crucial scene.
I really enjoyed the nuanced performances of Maggie Smith and Daniel Day-Lewis in this film. They seem like the annoying “bad” guys at first glance, but they have moments where they get to show their complexity. All the characters get their moments to shine in this film; I wouldn’t expect less from Merchant Ivory. Bonham Carter is strong (as always); I don’t think I’ve ever seen a weak performance from her! Here she gets to be a likeable “traditional” heroine, not a cheater or oddball- that’s interesting to see. Check this film out ASAP!!!