A Room with a View
Directed by James Ivory
Produced by Ismail Merchant
At the Nickelodeon Theater
"There is only one thing impossible--that is to love and to part."
E.M. Forster, A Room with a View
BEFORE E.M. FORSTER became an embittered, cynical old man preoccupied with the clash of cultures inside the British Empire, he was content to explore the clutch of emotions unleashed by the painful first love of a young boy and girl in Edwardian England. A Room with a View is that exploration, Forster's sketch of love and anguish sparked on the Tuscan hills and resolved in the English countryside. In the new screen version by the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory team (Heat and Dust, The Bostonians), we are treated to a respectful and intimate adaptation of Forster's touching novel.
Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), an understated but passionate girl from Surrey, is on holiday in Florence when she meets and unconsciously falls in love with an impetuous, progressive-thinking English lad, George Emerson (Julian Sands).
They meet over dinner at the Pensione Bertolini, a home away from home for respectable English tourists, managed, appropriately enough, by a cockney signora. Overhearing Lucy and her cousin complain that their room lacks a view of the Arno River, George's father (Denholm Elliott) offers to exchange the two ladies' rooms for his and his son's, which do possess the coveted perspective. Such an amenity is useless to him, he explains, for "my vision is within." So is that of his son, who is perhaps overly introspective, a characteristic telegraphed by his habit of constantly drawing question marks everywhere.
This casual encounter over dinner is followed by a much more cataclysmic event the next day, when the unsuspecting Lucy ventures out of the Pensione for the first time to meet the "real Italians," foreshadowing the way Adela Quested in A Passage to India will go in search of the "real Indians." Innocently perusing the wares of a postcard vendor in the main square, Lucy stumbles onto a street fight--an Edwardian equivalent of a gang war. Fainting away at the sight of a youth expiring at her feet, she is carried off by the already enamored George, no doubt eager to demonstrate his frustrated manhood for the sake of his lady in distress. When Lucy awakens, George confesses that "something has changed"--he will never be the same. For him, at least, this brief episode was the work of Fate.
Their passions, crystallized by a stolen kiss in the middle of a poppy field, are initially quashed by Lucy's rather repressed chaperone/cousin, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), who regards the kiss as nothing less than a violation of Lucy's honor--as well as a stain upon her own reputation as Lucy's escort.
LEAVING GEORGE TO ponder his own confused emotions and subsequently to plunge into a thicket of despondency and heartsickness, the two women scurry back to England where Lucy conveniently becomes engaged to an eminently suitable if terribly boring young bachelor, the aptly named Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day Lewis). Things would seem to be settled to everyone's satisfaction--Charlotte is safe in the knowledge that Mrs. Honeychurch (Rosemary Leach) remains blissfully unaware of her daughter's Italian involvement, Cecil is happy to have finally found someone who will put up with his psuedo-intellectual cultural arrivism, and Lucy is home in England and safe from George's clumsy if heartfelt advances.
Or is she? For when George and the elder Mr. Emerson unexpectedly show up as the new tenants of a vacant house in the Honeychurches' out-of-the-way village, Lucy and the plot are both thrown into a tailspin. Will she renounce the overly cerebral aesthete Cecil and find more physical and spiritual contentment with the earthy George? Will Lucy and George's brief encounter on the Tuscan hillside finally become public knowledge? Will Cecil fight for Lucy's hand or will he simply spend yet another hour in the Honeychurches' library reading up on Italian painting? Hmmmmm.
It would seem unlikely that trivial questions such as these--at least they seem trivial within the realm of modern life--would be enough to sustain the film. But somehow, they do. Director James Ivory is so successful at creating the atmosphere of upper-class Victorian England that the viewer never challenges the mores of Edwardian society. A kiss, so commonplace today, is presented as the logical grounds upon which one should decide on one's life mate.
The film's evocation of the period sustains it in spite of the miscasting of Bonham Carter as Lucy, giving a performance all too reminiscent of an earlier role as the title character in Lady Jane. Perhaps the two characters are similar in personality, but it would seem more likely that Bonham Carter's nascent acting skills require broadening.
Sands, on the other hand, is marvelous as the quintessential failed romantic; petrified of going through life a victim of unrequited love, he remains terminally shy in confronting the fairer sex. Hanging from an apple tree shouting his creed of "Verite, Love, Glory," he is the embodiment of the failure of youthful idealism.
In contemporary filmdom, happy endings come few and far between. Thus the promise of one--apparent from the film's start--should attract those alienated by the present trend of realistic cinema. Yet this Room with a View gives its audience more than a string of paired couples and crescending music at the close. An insightful study of character and society, this version of the Forster classic is not to be missed.