A Room with a View: English Hearts and Italian Sunshine

On Film / Essays — Sep 29, 2015
A Room with a View

Produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory, A Room with a View was filmed under cloudless blue skies in the spring and summer of 1985. It is set at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the chief locations are Florence, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance, and a large late nineteenth-century country house in South East England. In arid Tuscany (notwithstanding one dramatic downpour) and verdant Kent (standing in for Surrey), where the bracken grows chest-high, the sun seems always to shine. And despite one or two richly lit interior scenes and one sequence inside the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, the film leaves the spectator with an overwhelming impression of being entirely suffused with heart-lifting, open-air sunlight—not unlike, in this respect, some of the masterworks of Renoir or Rohmer.

Yet revisiting A Room with a View, thirty years on, one is struck not only by the glorious sunlight but equally by an effervescent lightness of tone—and a sense that the film has weathered the years without, in any significant way, growing old or stale. The tone is set at the opening. The descriptive credits for the story’s characters (“Mr. Emerson, an English tourist”) are matched with a series of decorative grotesques announcing the scenes to come. One might be watching the elegant, old-fashioned title cards of a silent movie (the characters of A Room with a View would, after all, be watching those early movies in a few years’ time), except that over the credits soars the voice of Kiri Te Kanawa singing the heartbreaking aria “O mio babbino caro,” from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi. Hear the first bars of this aria and still one thinks instantly of A Room with a View, much as when one hears Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto one can think of no other film but David Lean’s classic Brief Encounter.

Among the three Oscars won by A Room with a View was one for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, in the best-adapted category. The screenplay revealed, above all, perhaps, the writer’s faultless ear for the balance and irony, and occasionally the poetry, of Edwardian English diction. The lines flow so smoothly, and so amusingly, that one quite forgets that one is watching a social comedy almost entirely devoid of plot. A company of vivid individual characters holds center stage—from that snob of snobs Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) through the robust elderly sisters the Misses Catharine and Teresa Alan (Fabia Drake and Joan Henley) to young Freddy Honeychurch (Rupert Graves), the heroine’s brother, overflowing with head-over-heels adolescent enthusiasm. They divert and entrance the spectator and fix themselves in one’s memory.

There is too, of course, a very Edwardian moral here, about the “undeveloped heart”—and what a heap of trouble telling lies will land you in. But this is a moral most lightly delivered, and all the more effective for that. Mainly, however, what one takes away from the film today is a sense of having spent time with a succession of appealing and not-so-appealing individuals, some attractively self-aware and some so comically blinkered they can’t see who they are, or hear what nonsense they are spouting. One returns to A Room with a View in the same spirit that one returns to The Pickwick Papers, not so much to be reminded of what happens to the Pickwickians on their jaunts as to simply enjoy the company of Sam Weller and Alfred Jingle—or in this case, Cecil Vyse and the Reverend Mr. Beebe (Simon Callow).

Two English tourists, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter, in the role that would make her a star), an innocent upper-middle-class girl, and Miss Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), her cousin and chaperone, take rooms at the Pensione Bertolini in Florence. But their hostess, the Cockney Signora (Amanda Walker), has failed to furnish each of them with the promised “room with a view.” At the pensione’s communal dinner table, a fellow guest, Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott), who will reveal himself to be a freethinker, kindly offers to exchange his and his son George’s rooms, which have views, for Lucy’s and Charlotte’s. (Ladies like views, Mr. Emerson says. Views mean nothing to him and George. What matters is in here, and he stabs his chest vigorously with his fork!) From this shockingly inappropriate offer, so uncouth, so unconventional, so un-middle-class, in the eyes of Miss Bartlett, cascades a chain of events that will finally teach Lucy who she is and what she must do when she returns home to England, if she is to be happy and make a life for herself.

This life will not be governed by the rules of the Victorian era, an era that has more than outstayed its welcome, but will take its cue from the modern era that is already so fearfully yet excitingly getting under way. Lucy must open herself to other worlds, to the Italian Renaissance, for a start; to the beauty of the Tuscan landscape, so different from dear old England; to the lazy heat of the Mediterranean sun that stirs the blood in an unmentionable fashion; but also to an Italy, and indeed a coming Europe, where capricious violence lies just beneath the surface—where a man can be stabbed to death before her eyes for no apparent reason in the Piazza della Signoria and she can drop her picture postcards in his blood, before fainting and being gathered up in the strong arms of George Emerson (Julian Sands) . . .

On a hillside near Maiano, outside Florence, Miss Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench), a romantic novelist in search of material for her next book, produces two mackintosh squares and lays them with a flourish on the dry ground. The English prepare to take a picnic. Miss Lavish settles herself on one square, and Charlotte Bartlett insists that her charge, Lucy, occupy the other. “The ground will do for me,” Charlotte declares, disingenuous as ever. “I have not had rheumatism for years, and if I do feel a twinge, I shall stand up.” The two older women continue to gossip until the more worldly Miss Lavish makes a sign with her eyes—she cannot say more in Lucy’s virginal presence.

Charlotte clears her throat (“No, no, don’t be alarmed; this isn’t a cold . . .”), and Lucy, taking the hint, wanders off to look for the Reverend Mr. Arthur Beebe, a cheerful, perspicacious clergyman who is having a separate, all-male picnic with Mr. Emerson, the retired journalist from the pensione, and the Reverend Mr. Eager (Patrick Godfrey), chaplain of the Anglican church in Florence. George Emerson, a very muddled young man, as his father ruefully explains, has just toppled out of an olive tree while proclaiming his creed (“Beauty, Joy, Love”) at the top of his voice to the entire Arno Valley. Lucy approaches the handsome carriage man who has brought them up from Florence, interrupts his siesta, and asks in halting Italian the whereabouts of Reverend Beebe. The young Italian—whose beautiful girlfriend, with a mane of blonde hair, was turned out of the driving seat of the carriage on the journey to Maiano as a result of some innocent canoodling—misunderstands Lucy and directs her, naturally enough, to George, standing alone in a field of grain, gazing at the view. The awkward young Englishman turns, forgets for a moment the “everlasting Why,” wades through the poppies and barley, and kisses Lucy as if there were no tomorrow. Her arms fly out sideways in surprise and incomprehension. Charlotte, who has come running to the rescue, calls out in impotent distress.

Gathered on the Tuscan hill for the occasion of this famous kiss is a vivid assortment of English comic types. Charlotte Bartlett is suffocated by a sense of responsibility. Continental travel entails guarding against cheats, not placing oneself under an obligation to strangers, and being compelled to eat meat that, one suspects, has already been boiled for soup. Everything, in short, is a worry—and a cause for neurotic comic confusion. Miss Lavish, on the other hand, histrionically bares her breast to experience. She inhales the rich and doubtless pungent air of Florence with a contented sigh. Her favorite flower is not the “delightful” violet. She prefers “something wilder, bolder—the reckless rose, the tempestuous tulip.” She abhors Baedeker, that dreadful German tourist guide out of which timid English travelers cannot be induced to take their noses.

Of the two clergymen, one is the know-it-all Reverend Eager, who is both conceited (no one can put him right about the meaning of the Santa Croce frescoes of Giotto) and spiteful (witness his outraged ejection of the beautiful Italian girl from the driving seat of the carriage)—his lips are permanently pursed and his bushy side-whiskers are as precise and angular as his hat. The other is the inquiring Reverend Beebe, who is the soul of energetic muscular Christianity, with a winning streak of human understanding and a distinctly boyish exuberance, as he will prove back in England when he strips off with George Emerson and Lucy’s brother, Freddy, and leaps into the Sacred Lake—game for almost anything. In high contrast to these other two men, Mr. Emerson, having been a journalist, talks straight and honestly, his every utterance (and he seems to express himself exclusively in utterances) touched by a peculiarly trusting nonconformity. He is the film’s most truthful character—and in some ways its most likable.

All these people are on one level deliberate caricatures, set in place to illuminate the human dilemma of the central and somewhat more natural characters, George and Lucy. But they are living, affectionate caricatures, played with the dexterity and humor with which, in the golden years of the Hollywood studio system, such expatriates as Eric Blore and Sir C. Aubrey Smith used to impersonate the English—butlers, aristos, foolish old buffers—for the amusement of America and the world.

A Room with a View was the first of four films—the others being Maurice (1987), Howards End (1992), and The Remains of the Day (1993)—that might be designated the “English period” of Merchant Ivory Productions, that enduring partnership of Merchant, Jhabvala, and Ivory that began with The Householder in 1963 and ended with The City of Your Final Destination in 2009. The English films, from a commercial point of view, were the high point of this partnership, and they were launched by A Room with a View. This was the film that was and became, and in the popular imagination remains, “Merchant Ivory.” (In Italy, where it was renamed Camera con vista, it has almost assumed Italian nationality. It has become their Merchant Ivory film.)

Helena Bonham Carter is now recognized for an astonishing variety of roles—for playing, to pick two at random, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in The King’s Speech (2010), and later a very persuasive Elizabeth Taylor to Dominic West’s Richard Burton. But for many cinemagoers, the role of hers that will come first to mind is of the young, unformed Lucy Honeychurch, with her bright brown eyes and tangle of auburn hair, arguing with her chaperone in the Pensione Bertolini, at the start of her life-changing trip to Florence.

Daniel Day-Lewis went on, after A Room with a View, to play fewer, but perhaps even more varied, roles than Bonham Carter—culminating, most recently, in his magisterial portrait of the American president in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). But who can forget him as the affected Cecil Vyse, the mother’s boy of all mother’s boys, Lucy’s rejected fiancé, with his curious stiff walk that, when unobserved, he sets aside in order to skip up the stairs of the family home? Who can forget Cecil, framed through a window, arms flailing, silently battling with a bee, all dignity gone—who can forget, and who cannot smile?