James Ivory: A Room with a View

Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.

A Room with a View 
d. James Ivory (1986)
Spine: #775
Blu-ray Release Date: September 29, 2015

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.

A significant portion of my master’s thesis was devoted to E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. I read the book a dozen times on its own and feel like I read it a few dozen more through citations in the articles. “The Eternal Yes” and “muddle” have become terms of art through scholarship. I doubt I will ever read the book again, as much as I enjoy it. However, despite being basically done with the book, I’m not done with Merchant-Ivory’s 1986 film adaptation, which today is receiving a beautiful release — nicely capturing Florence and the English countryside — from The Criterion Collection. It fulfills the book’s intentions which are to be delightful and life-affirming, with an ample bit of cheek.

A Room with a View Cover

The story concerns Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), a young woman from Surrey who is on holiday in Italy with her cousin, the older — by a few decades — and single Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). Charlotte takes her responsibilities as chaperone quite seriously, which is all the worse since her natural inclination is toward restriction rather than openness. When we first meet Lucy and Charlotte, they are upset because their rooms at the pensione have not got the view they were promised. Naturally, Charlotte can complain expertly, though she has no idea how to fix the problem. Indeed, when a solution is presented, she sees fit to decline the rooms with the beautiful view being offered by Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) and his son George (Julian Sands). To Charlotte, accepting kindness from these men, particularly since the men do go about the conventionally proper way of offering the rooms — indeed, there is nothing conventional about the Emersons — would be inappropriate.

Ah, but she does want the rooms. Charlotte is finally able to talk herself into it, but she’s going to take the big one — sorry, Lucy — because it was the one the young George was in, and what a terrible thought to have Lucy occupy a room so recently occupied by a young man.

A Room with a View 1

A Room with a View is about how social conventions shut people in, force them to deny even their most innocent desires (let alone the not so innocent desires). James Ivory and Ismail Merchant understood this perfectly and tell the story visually as much as they rely on Forster’s book. There are plenty of shots, like the one above, of Lucy shut in, the glimmer of light being either hopeful or tortuous. The Emersons, as strange as they are, as inappropriate and embarrassing as they are, push against social constructs and recognize the parallels between the closed in room and the wild nature just off in the country. They do their best to integrate the two.

A Room with a View 3

When the group of proper folk goes out into the beautiful Italian countryside and their guard slips ever so slightly as they stand in fields of wild flowers. Letting one’s guard down, allowing emotions to burst through for even a moment, can bring elation, but just as quickly it can bring shame.

A Room with a View 5

Lucy finds herself in a terrible predicament. She is an emotional being, but society — enforced by her family — is telling her to quash all of that. It will be all the better for her. For her part, Charlotte offers little hope when she says, “In my small way I am a woman of the world. And I know where things can lead to.” For Lucy, the shame is real, tied closely to the elation she felt when George kissed her. But is Charlotte the person she wants to emulate?

Soon after they return from Italy, though, emulating Charlotte’s unmarried state is not in the cards for Lucy. She receives a proposal from the foppish, tightly wound Cecil Vyse (no, Forster’s names are not terribly subtle), played with relish by Daniel Day-Lewis.

A Room with a View 4

Though Day-Lewis has done superb work in a number of roles, this is still my favorite. I’d certainly not want to engage with his Cecil for long, but I could sit and watch him all day long, whether he’s looking incredibly out of place even out on the English lawn or whether he’s trying to kiss Lucy without losing his glasses. I enjoyed this film the first time I watched it, but it was Day-Lewis’s performance that had me watching it again. He may have even been a reason I opted to spend more time with this story by using it in my Masters thesis.

Of course, I think all of the performances here are superb, with perhaps the weakest link in my mind being Julian Sands, who doesn’t quite get the passion right, coming off more strange than unconventional. But with perfectly pitched performances from those I’ve already mentioned as well as from Judy Dench and Simon Callow, this film is delightful.

And that’s really its purpose, I think: to delight, indeed to take us outside of our stuffy rooms and celebrate delight, making us smile from the first moment, even though Lucy and Charlotte are so disappointed in their rooms, to the last when Lucy tries rather unsuccessfully to read a letter from her brother. This might be a surprise for viewers who think period pieces like this must be stuffy and constricted as well. Not only are the exterior scenes, with one particular scene of nude frolic, delightful, but the interior scenes, due to the sense of humor of the performers and the crew, are comic and droll as well.

It’s a wonderful film, and I hope its release doesn’t get forgotten at this time of year when many “big” releases are arriving. It doesn’t deserve to be shut away.


Supplements: The package is fairly light, though I enjoyed the supplements quite a bit for what we get. Lacking is any kind of commentary track, though the old DVD release had a commentary featuring Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, Simon Callow, and Tony Pierce-Roberts that was pretty good. I really like commentary tracks, and they seem to be rarer on new releases, even when ones have been made in the past (not that Criterion always has the rights to use ones made for other editions). Still, each of these individuals except for Merchant, who died in 2005, contribute to the supplements below.

  • First we get “Thought and Passion,” a 21:22 documentary produced by Criterion this year, featuring James Ivory, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, and costume designer John Bright about the production. While this supplement plays out as a series of interviews, I suppose it gets documentary status because it has some nice overlay with the film itself. This goes into some nice detail about the production but also about the production that might have been had the studio had its way. I have deeper respect for Merchant-Ivory for not only sticking to their guns but also for having the better taste to begin with.
  • Next we get “The Eternal Yes,” a 36:22 documentary produced by Criterion this year in which Helena Bonham Carter, Simon Callow, and Julian Sands discuss the film. Bonham Carter was only eighteen at the time, and it’s wonderful to hear of her experience making this break-out role. Callow initially thought he was going in to play George Emerson and was upset to learn he was to play the vicar. I do wonder what might have been here, but I wouldn’t want anyone else to play the vicar. Ah well, he got to frolic in the water whichever role.
  • Last, other than the original trailer, is a short segment from the March 29, 1987 broadcast of NBC Nightly News. That year, the Academy Awards were broadcast on March 30, and A Room with a View was, by this account, a surprising nominee for Best Picture. Besides Best Picture, the film was also nominated for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Denholm Elliott, richly deserved), Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Smith, richly deserved), Best Cinematography (Tony-Pierce Roberts), Best Adapted Screenplay (which it won), Best Art Direction (which it won), and Best Costume Design (which it won).
  • The disc comes with an accordion-style fold-out insert featuring an essay by Johm Pym.

4 thoughts on “James Ivory: A Room with a View

  1. I say “The Reverend Mr. Beebe” sometimes – just for fun!

    I watched this movie over and over and over again before I even attempted the book. But when I did read the book, I loved it just as much.

    I agree about Julian Sands’ portrayal. There was something missing – as if quiet and brooding and erratic meant passion? Possibly, but Cecil was more interesting indeed, and the brother Freddie was certainly more fun.

    And then “Poor Charlotte… Poor, poor Charlotte.” She reminded me of my elderly aunts when I was a little girl – tight and unyielding, but there was a soft spot for gossip and tawdry tales.

    This film introduced me to Merchant-Ivory films, Dame Judy Dench, and a great book.

  2. I don’t know how.many times I have watched this and yes you are right sands maybe.was one miscast but he was up against likes of smith Eliot day lewis all three of them great actors and great character actors then add Rupert faves at that time was so good in period drama .I loved graces in waugh’s handful of dust film

  3. To Lucy Honeychurch

    Bitter tears pour down my face
    with an anguished storm of sighing,
    when my eyes chance to turn on you
    through whom alone I am lost from the world.

    Yet it is true that your soft gentle smile
    quietens my ardent desires,
    and saves me from the fire of suffering,
    while I am intent and fixed on gazing…

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