A Room with a View (1985)

Dir. James Ivory. Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Julian Sands

There’s a neatness in A Room with a View that is a little offputting. The Edwardian neatness makes sense within its context, but in the film’s rush to create an opposition to that neatness, created almost entirely with looks to Wordsworth’s Nature, the movie becomes static. One admires the structure, to some extent, but the predictability of such a reductive interpretation of Nature is self-defeating. It’s the thematic equivalent of lyrics which can only change a situation once one chooses the right rhyme scheme. To get someone to act like a good Englishman, put him or her in a drawing room. To make someone act like an old-fashioned Romantic, get him or her into a field or forest.  Edwardian society = repression, Nature = freedom, two hours of movie, “that’s all, folks!” The movie has closed off avenues to thought quite purposefully, presenting a duality which is every bit as rigid as the standard view of premarital sexuality in its setting. How strange that the film wants to criticize the all-or-nothing approach of good manners in the early 1900s by replacing it with another all-or-nothing system.

Nature manages to get nearly everyone at one time or another: George (Sands) kisses the good girl out of Lucy (Bonham Carter) in a field, Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) attempts to plant one on his intended with hilarious results, and, in one particularly naked scene, a local pond inspires a nude three-way sprint involving George, Freddy (Rupert Graves), and Reverend Beebe (Simon Callow). These make up most of the better scenes from the film, the better part of the comedy, and some of the romance. Even the final scene of the movie, in which George does not restrain himself from covering Lucy in kisses, has that eponymous view so that one might see Brunelleschi’s suggestive dome. For my money, the finest scene in the movie probably takes place inside as Cecil is dumped by Lucy after having announced their engagement to everybody. Cecil is, as prudence dictates, gentlemanly about being rejected at this relatively late stage of the game. Lucy is firm, far more firm than we have ever seen her before, and also not entirely in command of her own thoughts. George is clearly at the top of her mind as she repeats criticisms of Cecil which she first took from George himself, which are mostly fair and maybe a little cutting. (It is inarguable, for example, that Cecil wouldn’t know what to do with a woman.) Lucy also seems to understand that she would not get results this good if she were to take this discussion outside; indoors there are too many rules and expectations for the way Cecil must act, and at the end of this encounter they shake hands. In short: it’s not as if the execution, mostly led by this movie’s actors and the words of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is bad. It’s simply that one wants to be given a way to interpret the film without recourse to a prescriptive grammar. This is fine filmmaking, but hardly sublime.

It’s a good thing that A Room with a View has much more going for it than that interplay, such as it is. All of the performances in this movie are really good, which is a luxury that so few movies can indulge in. Julian Sands is the only one of the movie’s central suite of major characters who is just “really good” as opposed to “excellent” or “wondrous” or some other adjective, and to be fair he as much to do as most anyone else without the dialogue to carry him on. He climbs up a tree, shouting his mantra: “Beauty! Truth! Love!” In practice, this is rather like watching Uncle Teo in Amarcord proclaim to the world, “I want a woman!” It’s not like this doesn’t work; it’s just that it’s significantly less meaty than Day-Lewis simultaneously becoming Juvenal and his target, or Smith playing the world’s most obnoxious human being. Charlotte is a nightmare of propriety, which is code for finding pleasure in the discomfort of others. Not a scene of hers passes without some tremendous display of passive-aggression matched with impotence. Her creed is to clear her debts promptly; naturally, it takes her some minutes to try to make the right amount of change for a cab and involves almost a half-dozen other people in the process. She complains bitterly about having a room without a view at her hotel, but when one is proffered by Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) without the slightest string attached, she demurs to the point of bluntness. She catches Lucy having the kiss of her young life with George, swears herself and Lucy to secrecy, and then promptly recounts the sequence to a chatty novelist, Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench). Yet there is nothing one can do for Charlotte; there are hints that she’s like this because her engagement was broken off, and now she’s old, lonely, and a little crazy. Smith plays this character to perfection, which is to say that I wanted to smack the person I grew up associating with Minerva McGonagall. Playing someone obnoxious isn’t particularly difficult; playing an obnoxious person like the audience has known them and put up with them for years is something quite different and requires a totally different skill level.

A Room with a View makes an interesting foil to two other stories about the English coming to Italy: Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy and the second episode of Charles Sturridge’s Brideshead Revisited, “Home and Abroad.” Each of the three stories sends its characters to a different part of Italy—Florence, Naples, and Venice, respectively—but each of them treats whatever Italian city it’s in as loaded with some mystical power. There’s a brief tour worthy of Baedeker in A Room with a View; half of Journey to Italy is about all of the places in Naples and Pompeii that Ingrid Bergman visits; there are enough canals for in Brideshead Revisited to sell a thousand Viking River Cruises. Yet none of these exist to explain how Italy has a tremendous effect on the English holidaymakers going there. For all three films, there is something sexual risen in its major characters when they visit Italy. In Brideshead Revisited, the late Stephane Audran expresses her opinions on the “romantic friendships” of Anglo-Saxon male youths, and the key shot of the entire episode sees Sebastian and Charles holding one another on the rainy edge of the water. In Journey to Italy, a longstanding marriage between two stolid adults is nearly crippled because of what Naples represents. For Bergman’s Katherine, Naples reminds her of a dead poet who loved her and who inspired the romantic in her. (It’s a scene lifted so brazenly from James Joyce’s “The Dead” that I yelled “Plagiarism!” at my screen.) For George Sanders’ Alex, the beautiful young women wandering around Naples and Capri are more pliant and of course younger versions of Katherine, women he might be able to claim in the way that he can no longer lay claim to his wife. A Room with a View, of course, uses Naples as a way to trigger Lucy’s sexual awakening in the arms of a young man who can let his freak flag fly, in a very Edwardian sense, now that he is not in England. Of the trio, A Room with a View spends the most time in England (although obviously Brideshead takes that prize if we consider the entire miniseries), and it’s clear from that choice that it intends to spend most of its time working out its contrasts rather than imbuing us with a sense of Italy’s strange, almost Orientalized power: romance against restraint, Italy against England, Nature against society.

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