Based on EM Forster’s novel, the famed production/directing duo Ismail Merchant/James Ivory’s A ROOM WITH A VIEW (1985) takes an unconventional view of a romantic tale in a very conventional time. Set in Edwardian British society, a young miss Lucy Honeychurch, portrayed delightfully by Helena Bonham Carter in her first big screen debut, and her overbearing cousin chaperone (talented Maggie Smith) vacation at the Pensione in Florence, Italy. In a favored lodgings for upper middle class visiting Brits, the two meet George (handsome Julian Sands) and his father Mr. Emerson (charmingly quirky Denholm Elliott), sweet spinster sisters the Alans, novelist Eleanor Lavish (Dame Judi Dench), along with the vicar from Lucy’s hometown Reverend Beebe (Simon Callow).
The Emersons offer to trade rooms after Lucy complains at dinner of the burden of spending her first trip to Italy without a proper view of the River Arno as they were promised. They spend their days in typical tourist leisure in the romantic Italian settings as a quiet curiosity builds between George and Lucy. Soon love takes a hold of George and Lucy but cousin Charlotte intervenes to uphold a strict code of Brit societal suppression. Lucy and Charlotte move onto Rome then back home to the simple country life in sleepy Windy Corner near Surrey, England.
Months have passed since Lucy was first courted by pretentious Cecil (perfectly portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis). Fate intervenes when new tenants take a cottage in town as Mr. Emerson brings George back into Lucy’s life again just when Lucy finally says yes to Cecil’s proposal for marriage, even though he is completely wrong for her. British societal class taboos continue to get muddled, as Lucy and George struggle with what is expected vs. what is desired…
Here are my favorite reasons to love A ROOM WITH A VIEW:
1. The romance of Italy
This is the film that made me first fall in love with Italy. The film takes its time in pace, which allows the audience to soak in the beauty. Italy represents overwhelming beauty- from the landscapes like master paintings, to the museums brimming with history and art, to its colorful people so passionate and expressive. And oh those waving fields of golden barley. It’s Italy that awakens the repressed passions, thinly veiled just under the surface for Lucy. For George, Italy is where he feels free to truly be himself, it’s the spark that leads to the answers to all of life’s questions. His answer is Lucy.
A ROOM WITH A VIEW also introduced me to opera, specifically the Italian arias of Puccini. It’s like I had never heard anything so moving and passionate in my entire life. Of course, the visually romantic settings and breathtaking chemistry of our cross-starred lovers paired with that Puccini is a delicious recipe for romance.
3. Suppressed then awakened passions of Lucy
In an otherwise quiet moment at the Pensione in Florence, the Rev. Mr. Beebe discovers Miss Lucy playing the piano. She is playing Beethoven with such vigor that her hair is disheveled and she wipes the beads of sweat from her face when she finishes. And playing Beethoven with such passion simply wasn’t done in Edwardian times by a young lady of society. Mr. Beebe communicates his insightful observation openly to her. He knows she is meant for so much more in life than the one she pretends to lead.
4. Unapologetically in-love-at-first-sight George
George is adrift until he meets Lucy in Florence. When they switch rooms so that she may have her view, Lucy and Charlotte start to settle in their new accommodations just as George briskly walks back in. Without a word, he walks over to a curious large penciled-in question mark on the reverse side of framed art and flips it back to its original side, then walks straight out again. Charlotte is bewildered.
But I think this is the evident first clue to the true personae of our dear George. George is clearly the son of his father, raised to question, educated by poets and philosophers such as Thoreau and Nietzsche. He is in search of answers to life’s burning questions, until he meets Lucy. Suddenly life is less about thinking and more about feeling- specifically for love. His instinct for love overtakes him when he sees Lucy slowly walk over to him in a sea of golden barley (cue the Puccini).
5. Poor, poor Charlotte
Maggie Smith’s Charlotte is a slave to tradition, to social rules. She feels a great sense of responsibility to her role as chaperone to Lucy when they are abroad. But she’s also a delightful mess. She applies strict rules of confidence to Lucy when she fears her honor has been threatened, yet later breaks this secrecy herself when she reveals the details to novelist Lavish. Later on when Charlotte visits the Honeychurch home in England, there is a funny scene of Charlotte trying to figure out how to make change for the carriage driver. It exemplifies what a funny mess she really is, portrayed charmingly by Smith.
6. “Here is where the birds sing” Mr. Emerson
Denholm Elliott may be best known as the bumbling yet lovable Marcus Brody in two of the “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” films. Here he is equally lovable as George’s father. He possesses no adept understanding of social graces as the likes of Cecil or Charlotte, but he’s an honest and good man and he knows how to be a deeply kind and devoted father. He’s a truly sympathetic character and the only one who really sees through Lucy lying to herself.
7. Naked men running around a pond
In a funny twist of fate (as there are a few), George crosses paths with Lucy’s brother Freddy and Mr. Beebe in town, shortly after Mr. Emerson has moved in to his new cottage. Freddy feels an immediate brotherly bonding with George and asks, “come have a bathe.” So the fellas go skinny dipping in the Honeychurch pond and horse around by running about naked just as Cecil takes the Honeychurch ladies for a walk- right into the naked pond party. It’s both a laughable and revealing moment, literally and figuratively. By placing these characters in this embarrassing scene, it’s further evidence that playful, full-of-life George is a perfect match for Lucy and stiff prig Cecil is not.
8. Completely the wrong man
Daniel Day-Lewis is superb as Cecil, the stiff snob. He is well-read and well-bred. But there isn’t a manly bone in his thin body. He lacks any sexuality or passion. At one point he tells Lucy that they’re engaged but he hasn’t even kissed her yet. She tells him it’s silly because he needn’t wait for her permission. (Note, in contrast, George boldly took her in his arms when they first kissed- passionately, as the instinct washed over them.) When Cecil does attempt to kiss Lucy, it’s an awkward failure. Let’s face it, this guy is out of his league.
George [speaking to Lucy about Cecil]: “He’s the sort who can’t know anyone intimately, least of all a woman. He doesn’t know what a woman is. He wants you for a possession, something to look at, like a painting or an ivory box. Something to own and to display. He doesn’t want you to be real, and to think and to live. He doesn’t love you. But I love you. I want you to have your own thoughts and ideas and feelings, even when I hold you in my arms.”
9. Playful Freddy and the sweet siblings
Rupert Graves is Freddy, Lucy’s amiable brother who possesses all the precocious boyish charm his country upbringing reflects. What’s endearing about Freddy is his comfortable ease and close bond with his sister Lucy. It seems natural, very authentic the way he plays silly songs on the piano beside her and physically pokes and prods at her like a sweetly annoying little brother likes to gain attention from an older sister. He openly makes fun of Cecil and quickly connects with George (good instincts, brother.)
10. Hooray for hot kissing scenes!
There’s something incredibly sexy about romantic scenes that are the opposite of being gratuatis or overt. In this case, the repressed Edwardian era, combined with George’s and Lucy’s fiery passions that are trying their best to remain suppressed, adds a great deal of heat to the kissing scenes between Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter.
In addition to the field of barley kiss, there is another kiss where George is playing tennis with Freddy and Lucy at the Honeychurch grounds. They invite Cecil but of course he is much too bookish for such silly games. In a break, Cecil reads a passage from Eleanor Lavish’s recent book. Unaware of its meaning, he reads a paragraph which is clearly an exact description of Lucy and George’s first kiss in Florence. Walking back to the house, and only yards away from Cecil who continues to be engrossed in his reading, George takes Lucy in his arms again to passionately kiss Lucy. She pretends to be insulted later but in the moment, she is kissing him back with equal passion.
This film on the surface is a lovely romantic feast for the senses, but there’s more underneath here. This story reflects what many young women like Lucy and young men like George may have been experiencing at the turn of the twentieth century Britain… an awakening.
Lucy Honeychurch: “How quickly these accidents do happen and then one returns to the old life.”
George Emerson: “I don’t. I mean, something’s happened to me… and to you.”
This review is my tardy contribution to A SHROUD OF THOUGHTS’ 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon. To find a complete list of participants see Terry’s site for their splendid posts: