by Sam Juliano
It is rare for one to conclude that a title sequence is the most unforgettable component in a film that offers so much more, and succeeds admirably on practically every level. Yet this is precisely the case with Ismael Merchant and James Ivory’s ravishing period piece A Room with a View (1985) based on the beloved 1908 novel of the same name by E. M. Forster. Over the sublime vocals of soft-toned soprano Kiri TeKanawa, who delivers an incomparable reading of Giacomo Puccini’s great aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi, the third part of the composer’s triptych opera Il Trittico, we are treated to the sumptuous watercolor illustrations by Florentine artist Folco Cianfanelli. Ornate shapes, patterns and designs accompany the peace meal scrolling of the film’s actors and craftsmen, but more importantly this collaboration of aural and artistic elements render the film a sensory as well as narrative appeal. The Forster hook was there, it was up to Merchant and Ivory to craft the proper sensibilities. In any case the affinity for Puccini did not end with the beloved credit aria, as the big kiss in the Italian fields was immeasurably boosted by the intoxicating “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from the composer’s La Rondine, also voiced by the inimitable Ms. Te Kanawa. The number is revisited in part by way of orchestration in other parts of the film. When Puccini isn’t dominating the soundtrack in his traditional take no prisoners manner -his two arias accentuate the richness of the setting and the romantic underpinning of the story- the Merchant/Ivory stock company composer Richard Robbins brings his own considerable measure of lyricism that is perfectly attuned to the score’s operatic hook. As far as the aforementioned credit sequence is concerned it should be noted that the same design is interspersed throughout the film in the manner of chapter titles.
It could certainly be argued that Forster’s Howard’s End and A Passage to India are more complex novels with a wider breadth, but by way of delight and engagement A Room with a View may hold poll position in his canon. The novel is an Edwardian comedy of manners with some acidic wit that is magically transformed on the screen from what seems like a light and frivolous enterprise into something much more soulful in its rapturous appreciation of Italy’s scenic resplendence. It wound up influencing a host of other films like Enchanted April and Under the Tuscan Sun, but on the strength of it’s writing, cinematography, music, set design and especially it’s cast it is the best in it’s sub-genre.
Like the source material the film’s narrative isn’t particularly complicated. In 1907 a young English girl, Lucy Honeychurch and her spinster cousin Charlotte Bartlett vacation in Florence, and stay at the Pensione Bertolini. They meet up with other English guests including the freethinking Mr. Emerson and his despondent son George. Emerson makes an early quip about the acid in lemonade that sets the film’s saucy tone. When the women discover their rooms do not have a “view” they exchange rooms with the Emersons at the men’s insistence. Complications soon arise, starting when George passionately kisses Lucy in the Florentine Hills. Charlotte responds by cutting short their visit and they return to England. Lucy becomes involved with the priggish Cecil Vyse, and they are soon engaged. The Emersons then re-enter the picture, and George calls into question the reasons why her marriage plans are a colossal mistake. Lucy finds who she is and soon rejects Cecil, telling him she never really loved him, and that she was nothing more than arm candy for him. She realizes George is the vital candidate for her affections, and the couple appear at the conclusion in Florence -this time on their honeymoon- amidst the aesthetic and sensual pleasures and surroundings.
The natural beauty of Italy and England are captured sumptuously by the cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, who makes all the locations prime vacation spots for those who have only imagined these hamlets of paradise. The kiss in the Italian field is properly magnificent, and the very height of pictorial bliss. The adaptation was written by the most honored of all the Merchant-Ivory scribes, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an Indian-American who brought wit, humanity and subtlety to Forster’s prose. The cast defines ensemble excellence from top to bottom, small to large. Maggie Smith takes on the role of the spinster Charlotte, and her hollow eyes make it impossible to regard her as a caricature. Her eyes reveal the price she has paid for being “inoffensive.” Her mannered delivery is utterly delightful. The two older spinster Alan sisters as played by Fabia Drake and Joan Henley are humane and touching, and exude a great deal of charm. The superb actor Denholm Elliott forges a warm Mr. Elliot; to be sure he is socially bumbling, but shows a good heart and a confidence in the human race. Julien Sands does wonders with the role of George, a character who could be seen as more of a symbol than a acceptably fleshed out character. He brings a great deal of conviction to the portrayal. Simon Callow is irresistible as the exuberantly good-natured, bicycle-riding and cigarette smoking Reverend Beebe. Helena Bonham Carter as the gorgeous Lucy is a model of indecision, and she rides this emotional roller coaster to the hilt. The other Honeychurches, Rosemary Leach as the mother and Rupert Graves as the coltish brother Freddy deliver vivid supporting turns, and as Cecil, Daniel Day-Lewis gives an idiosyncratic performances as an emotionally frigid bookworm. His turn comes the closest to caricature, but it also intensifies his vulnerability and his management of emotional pain. Cecil makes a memorable appearance in the nude scene set in the glade, where he leads Lucy and Mrs. Honeychurch to encounter George, Freddy and the Reverend Beebe without clothes on after their swim in a pond. The scene exemplifies more than any other in the film the motif of liberation from the constraints of society.
A Room with a View brings together delicacy, unassailable charm and a whimsical quality in its study of characters who have been stripped of their social veneer to reveal basic human needs through both deliberation and impulse. The film is ultimately liberating, though it is clear enough that conventions will still be adhered to by those in less tenable situations. It is master class Merchant and Ivory, a textbook example of how all the various components in films can work seamlessly to deliver stellar entertainment and aesthetic beauty.
Note: This essay on “A Room with a View” was written for the Criterion Blues blogathon, run by three people including our good site friend Aaron West. Here is a link to threes sites running the project: Speak Easy (https://hqofk.wordpress.com/) Silver Screenings (http://silverscreenings.org/) and Criterion Blues – Aaron West – (http://criterionblues.com/)