“A Room with a View”: a review and reconsideration

After Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) tells her fiance Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) that the wedding is off, she walks confidently upstairs, leaving him stunned and directionless.

But the camera doesn’t cut away at that moment. We see Cecil gather himself — sort of. He sits down on the steps and begins lacing up his shoes.

I first saw A Room with a View, the brilliant Merchant-Ivory adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel, at the Hi-Pointe Theatre in St. Louis in the mid-1980s, and that scene has stuck in my head ever since.

I’ve seen the film maybe a couple of times since then on VHS, but I never again saw A Room with a View on the big screen until last Saturday at the Savannah Film Festival. It was a 9 a.m. show, added late to the schedule on the last day of the busy festival. Maybe 100 people showed up to Trustees Theater, a pretty small crowd given not only the film’s beauty but also the presence of Julian Sands, who plays George Emerson and who held a fascinating Q&A after the screening.

That moment with Cecil was just as powerful this time around — over 25 years later.

Julian Sands brought up that same moment spontaneously as he talked to the audience. He noted the scene’s “richness” and said that in a film today a moment like that would almost certainly be cut. It’s in that lingering shot that we can fully appreciate Cecil’s humanity, Sands said.

There’s another similarly beautiful moment when the “Miss Alans” are walking slowly up the steps of the Italian pensione. They hear Lucy’s intense piano playing echoing through the stairwell. They pause, and one of them looks up, radiant as she listens.

I could go on and on. There are so many small delights in A Room with a View that the word “delight” doesn’t really cut it. Again and again, character is revealed in the briefest of looks and subtlest of gestures.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the film has such a rich human texture given the creative minds behind it. James Ivory directed, of course, and his partner Ismail Merchant was producer. The details in Forster’s novel are interpreted beautifully for the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, one of the finest screenwriters of all time.

Of course, there’s a lot more going on in A Room with a View than the attention to detail that I’ve emphasized so far.

Maybe some viewers just watch the film as a sardonic take on the wealthier classes of English society in the early 20th century — a (romantic) comedy of manners. But A Room with a View resonates much more deeply than that. It’s a story of heart over mind. It’s a story that revels in the rich diversity that can be found even in the narrowest of social strata. It’s a story of characters — both young and old — finding, testing, and occasionally crossing the boundaries of a mannered society with fixed protocols for even the simplest of interactions.

That last theme is most prominent in the scene where Freddy (Rupert Graves) asks George, whom he has just met, to join him for a bath in a nearby pond. They encourage Mr. Beebe (Simon Callow) to join them. The resulting skinnydipping scene is comic — even hysterical when Lucy, her mother and Cecil approach — but beautiful at the same time, as these three men set aside the definitions foisted upon them by their clothes. As Sands noted after the film, the actors become “free-spirited Lawrencian creatures.” Sands emphasized “the sweetness, the innocence” of that scene.

From Lucy’s impetuousness, to George shouting to the heavens, to Catherine Alan (Fabia Drake) looking at herself in the mirror after the Emersons (Sands and Denholm Elliott) have put cornflowers in her hair, to the Reverend Mr. Beebe (Simon Callow) relishing his own speculations about Lucy’s undiscovered passion, to Charlotte (Maggie Smith) recognizing and at times regretting her own stilted manipulations of others, to Freddy’s inability to control his impulsivity, we see characters both accept and challenge the social mores that they will almost certainly never completely abandon.

And we see them lie, a lot, to themselves and to others.

And pretty much anyone can relate to these various elements. We all grew up and live in societies that have traded some freedom for greater security. Whether you’re a 20ish kid with an uncertain future watching A Room with a View at a theater in St. Louis or a 50ish adult in Savannah wondering about what the rest of your life will hold, the rich themes of the film invite you inside.

The themes might pull us in, but we hang around an extra while just for the beauty. The landscapes, faces, bodies, clothes and all the other visuals of the film are compelling in their own right. We revel in the film, and we don’t want it to end.

I guess I had forgotten just how much of A Room with a View takes place in Italy, a country which throughout the film symbolizes a passion and freedom lacking in England. “It is fate. But call it Italy if it pleases you, Vicar,” George tells the Reverend Mr. Beebe just before the men strip off for their bath.

I had also forgotten that the film becomes at times a biting critique of Western tourism. At least the slightly scandalous novelist Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench) is interested in wandering Italy without a guide and without her Baedeker, right? Well, no, not really — Lavish is just using the Italians as props to titillate her late Victorian readers. And for most of the English travelers the pensione becomes a stage on which they can act out the same social jostling that defines their lives at home.

After the film, I asked Sands about the extraordinary cast. As he worked with others who went on to such stellar careers, like Helena Bonham Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis, did they realize that Ivory and his team were making such a brilliant film? Did they know that they were in the midst of something special?

No, said Sands, emphasizing how easy it was to work with Ivory, especially after shooting Gothic with Ken Russell. “It was a feeling of being on a perpetual picnic,” said of the set of A Room with a View. Which makes the film’s accomplishments all the more remarkable.

Sands said that the it would be nearly impossible to make A Room with a View today, but I think he knew that he was exaggerating, at least to a degree. After all, the Savannah Film Festival opened with Alexander Payne’s new black and white film Nebraska — a film that discovers and explores subtle human interactions.

Still, Sands’ words struck many chords with the audience. The business of film favors fast action and quick cuts. There seems little room in the current market for films like A Room with a View.

Sands said that the filmmakers were actually pushed to cast Glenn Close as Lucy Honeychurch and John Travolta (!) as George Emerson, but that Ivory refused. (If this post finds its way across Mr. Ivory’s desk, I’d love to hear confirmation of that.)

Sands repeatedly noted Ivory’s patience in allowing the scenes to play out — and how much more is thus revealed. Those extra moments to dwell on the characters and on the locations are “punctuation to the humanity of the piece.”

“I was so taken with the older characters,” said Sands, who apparently watched the film along with the rest of us. He called Ivory a “contemporary miniaturist” — a wonderful description — and praised “the delicacy of his touch.”

“There is something Lawrencian,” Sands said when asked about the broader themes and about his character George Emerson, whom he considers a “perennial” character with a certain androgyny.

“He’s of his time and of all time,” Sands said of George.

Despite his repeated statements that A Room with a View would likely not get made today, Sands said, “I don’t fear for the future of film.”

In discussing the diversity of his own career and the rejection of “soft roles” (even “soft porn”) that he was offered after A Room with a View, Sands said, “I didn’t become an actor to be sure where I am going to be.”

The current business climate and the demands of audiences might make it harder than ever for films like A Room with a View to be made and to find audiences, but, as Sands also said, “quality endures.”

I took some photos of Sands during the Q&A. He was standing in front of the stage, so the lighting wasn’t so great, but a few turned out pretty well.