I watched 1986’s “A Room With a View”—Merchant Ivory’s first chapter of a brilliant run of high-quality period-piece films—five or six times in the movie theater. It was unique and stood head and shoulders above the rest of its contemporary fare, except for maybe “Back to the Future” and 1986’s “Platoon.” This film review is about an artistically told tale of a Victorian-era “Little-Miss-Can’t-Be-Wrong” learning to follow her heart and live her bliss.
Even though all the Merchant Ivory films were fabulous, for some reason I thought Merchant Ivory Productions was some kind of company brand that made Victorian soap operas. Maybe it was the name Ivory. Ivory soap. Period-piece soap operas. My younger mind was a little obtuse.
Classic novel adaptations (in this case E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name) of high-production quality and world-class acting talent were what Merchant Ivory did. Merchant Ivory was the following team: director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and producer Ismail Merchant.
Down Memory Lane
Rewatching “A Room With a View” in 2019, I confirmed that my two favorite characters are the impetuous and passionate young George Emerson (Julian Sands) and his compassionate father (Denholm Elliott), whose healing effect on people is due to a generous soul and deep wisdom regarding affairs of the heart.
My next favorite was of course the debut of the then-19-year-old, petulantly pouting, luxuriantly maned Helena Bonham Carter, all frilly dressed, dark-browed, square-jawed, and exceedingly brooding and fetching. This level of beauty is often what drags young men into movie theaters, after all.
I loathed Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1986, and now, in 2019, I see what happened: Day-Lewis, that ultimate chameleon character-actor-in-a-leading-man’s-body, became the snobbish, pince-nez-wearing, priggish Cecil Vyse, with his obsessive-compulsive robotic cane-swinging, so thoroughly that I didn’t see it as an acting performance. This go-round, with my own acting career behind me, I enjoyed his performance like a fine wine.
Lucy Honeychurch (Bonham Carter), a respectable young British lady of good breeding, is vacationing in Florence, Italy, chaperoned by one Miss Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith).
The two are put out because they don’t have a room with a view. Theirs is a back-alley view. At the Italian pensione’s bed-and-breakfast-y communal dinner, they meet George Emerson and his father, the latter of whom insists they all swap rooms, since men are less concerned with having a good view.
The next day, Lucy manages to ditch Miss Bartlett and goes roaming the city. As fate would have it, she and George end up in the same piazza, where they witness a rather horrific stabbing. She faints, and George ministers to her. A powerful bond is forged, but she, in her youthful inexperience and prim-and-properness, fails to recognize it for what it is.
Later on in the vacation, they wind up in the same orchard, where the delightfully eccentric George climbs a tree and loudly declaims his creed. We hear him shouting in the distance, “Love!!! Beauty!!! Joy!!!”
Then, Lucy comes upon George meditating in a breeze-blown field of golden wheat and red lilies, where he sweeps her off her feet and kisses her, and she, despite herself, lets him, and, had Miss Bartlett not interrupted them, the realization that this was the love of her life would most likely have dawned on her. As it stands, it only serves to make her shore up her societal expectations more vehemently.
A few months later, back in England, Lucy gets engaged to the snooty Cecil Vyse. As fate would further have it, George and his father start renting a cottage in the vicinity.
Lucy’s options are paraded before us: on the one hand, the supercilious Cecil awkwardly trying to smooch his new fiancée, cringe-worthily smooshing his pince-nez against her face; on the other, the skinny-dipping George, cavorting with Lucy’s brother Freddy (Rupert Graves) and the local pastor, The Reverend Mr. Beebe (Simon Callow). C’mon Lucy, wake up! Who’s more fun? She can’t entirely suppress, however, a little grin at the shameless mischievousness of it all.
And then one day, George grabs Lucy and kisses her again, following it up with an impassioned speech, telling her that she can’t marry Cecil. Cecil only wants Lucy as eye-candy to bolster his priggish foppery. George will lay down his life for her and walk on broken glass to win her heart. This still doesn’t do it for Lucy, so self-deluded is she.
To be fair, Lucy’s lived a thoroughly suffocating, Victorian existence of piano in the parlor, petticoats, P’s and Q’s, and prim-and-properness. These were the days when a lady’s exposed ankle was enough to make a man beside himself with desire.
It must also be said, though, that this is an archetypal period in the life of a particular kind of young woman (a good example of which is the song “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” by the 1990s alt-rock group the Spin Doctors).
There’s a specific type of young woman who would rather be right than be happy. She’d rather die than admit her feelings of ardor for a young man—the need to cut off the nose to spite the face is all-powerful. It can take her until her mid-40s to experience enough heartache to be able to lose that stubborn attachment and then realize that she’s exhausted and would now rather be happy than right.
It is ultimately kind, old, free-thinking, Thoreau-reading Mr. Emerson who recognizes Lucy’s love for his son that she’s willfully suppressing (and lying about) and gently points it out to her. Which unleashes a floodgate of tears of relief at finally allowing the truth of the matter to enter her conscious mind.
Love! Beauty! Joy!
“A Room With a View” is visually sumptuous, with Italian architecture, Tuscan vistas, wooded British byways populated with horses and carriages, and Victorian costumes, all of which are moving aesthetically.
The sense of nature is strong. All of which stands in sharp contrast to the dry, intellectual comportment of the characters, and fusty convention of lives lived from a place of timidity and fear.
George, his father, and Freddy (to a lesser extent) are the sources of passion in the story, and passion, in this case—is truth. Lucy’s passionate nature emerges only when she plays Beethoven; otherwise, it’s stuffed up and padlocked. George disagrees with Reverend Beebe that these are all chance meetings. He knows they’re fate and destiny. George’s unfettered passion for Lucy ultimately frees Lucy’s own passion for life. The Emersons, senior and junior, encourage us to look within, think about, and acknowledge consciously how we feel.
“A Room With a View” was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress and Actor for Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott). It ultimately won three: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Costume Design.
’A Room With A View’
Director: James Ivory
Starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis, Maggie Smith, Julian Sands, Judi Dench, Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, Rupert Graves
Rating: Not Rated
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Release Date: March 7, 1986 (USA)
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5