It was my friend Pete who got me hooked on Italy. Pete was a huge Italy aficionado starting back in high school. He wasn't obsessed with Italy like Dennis Christopher in BREAKING AWAY (1979). Pete didn't wear an Italian bike jersey and speak Italian to his mother and father all the time. But he loved the country,the people, and the culture of Italy. And it rubbed off on me in many ways including cinematically.
If a film has an Italian location, I'll probably watch it. UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN, THE TALENTED MR.RIPLEY, CLIFFHANGER, even the dull NINE I watch as much for the Italy locations as for the film itself. Which brings me to A ROOM WITH A VIEW (1985), one of my favorite period films, partially set in Florence, Italy. I must have first seen A ROOM WITH A VIEW in college because when I made my itinerary for my backpacking trip after college, Florence, Italy was one of my destinations. Landmarks like the Duomo, the Giotto Tower, and the River Arno are all places I visited and can be seen in the film.
Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, A ROOM WITH A VIEW was produced by the filmmaking team known as Merchant/Ivory. This team consisted of producer Ishmail Merchant and director James Ivory. Merchant/Ivory were synonymous with classy period films in the 80's and 90's like HOWARD'S END (1992), THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993), and JEFFERSON IN PARIS (1995). There was really a third member of this team, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala who wrote many of the screenplays for Merchant/Ivory films including HEAT AND DUST (1983; based on her novel), MR.AND MRS. BRIDGE (1990), and A ROOM WITH A VIEW.
A ROOM WITH A VIEW is really a film of two halves. The first half takes place in Florence, Italy and the second half in southern England. The film begins in Florence where Ms. Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham-Carter) and her chaperon and annoying cousin Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith) are staying at the Pensione Bertolini with several other colorful English tourists. Amongst the group are the eccentric Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott),a former newspaper journalist; his brooding romantic of a son George Emerson (Julian Sands); the jovial Reverend Mr. Beebe (Simon Callow) from Lucy's English village; and even a romance novelist Eleanor Lavish (Judy Dench).When Lucy and Charlotte don't get the room with a view of Florence they requested, Mr. Emerson and George offer the two women their room with a view. As Mr. Emerson puts it, "Women like looking at a view. Men don't."
One morning, Lucy goes for a walk on her own through Florence. As she passes through the Piazza Santa Croce, she witnesses a fight between two men and one of them is stabbed. She faints but George, also strolling through the Piazza, comes to her aid. This act of violence seems to awaken Lucy to the physical sensations of life and to the keen interest George seems to have in her. Later, the English group joined by the Reverend Mr. Eager (Patrick Godfrey), Chaplain of the Anglican Church in Florence, take a horse and buggy ride to the Tuscan countryside for a picnic. While looking for the Reverend Beebe, Lucy encounters George in a beautiful meadow. George impulsively kisses Lucy to the horror of Charlotte, her meddling chaperon, who fears for Lucy's reputation. Charlotte insists they leave Florence immediately.
The film switches locations to southern England some months after the Italy trip where the pretentious and romantically awkward Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) announces to Lucy Honeychurch's mother Marion (Rosemary Leach) and Lucy's wild brother Freddy (Rupert Graves) that Lucy has accepted his proposal of marriage. Cecil comes from a better class than the Honeychurch's. While Cecil might come from a better social standing, he's lacking in warmth and intimacy. But coincidence and fate begin to intrude as the Emerson's, through a chance encounter with Cecil at the London National Gallery, rent a cottage in Lucy's village. Once again, Lucy and George are near each other. Lucy lies and tries to tell everyone who will listen that she loves Cecil but in the end, Lucy gives in to her true feelings and breaks off her engagement to Cecil to marry George.
In my estimation, A ROOM WITH A VIEW is the pinnacle film for the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala team and they never quite attained the same magic - both creatively and financially. A ROOM WITH A VIEW was like catching lightning in a bottle. The writing, the directing, the acting, the music (love Puccini's O mio babbino caro), and the locations all mesh in perfect harmony. The most famous scene in the film where George, Freddy, and Reverend Beebe are bathing naked in a local pond and are discovered by Lucy, Cecil, and Mrs. Honeychurch has to be one of the most naturally funny sequences I've ever seen. But almost every scene in this film has a funny moment that just adds to the overall charm of the film. Ivory uses a clever device in which he divides the film into chapters (just like the Forster book) with title cards like OFFICIALLY ENGAGED or LYING TO CECIL. Even this simple device gives the film a unique blending of the cinematic and the literary.
Merchant/Ivory's other two most famous adaptations HOWARD'S END (also based on an E.M. Forster novel) and THE REMAINS OF THE DAY are both well made and acted but they lack the humor, perfect casting, and exquisite scenery that A ROOM WITH A VIEW has. Most English costume films end with the heroine dying in the arms of her lover or the doomed lovers never being able to requite their love. A ROOM WITH A VIEW has a happy ending. Boy does get girl. Not everyone is miserable all the time. And everyone is happy in the end.
Each character is perfectly cast. Helena Bonham-Carter is luminous as the coming-of-age Lucy. We see her grow into an independent woman before our lives. Julian Sands is good looking and quirky as the free-spirited George Emerson. Daniel Day-Lewis takes the hardest role as the pompous Cecil Vyse and displays great comical flair yet makes Cecil sympathetic and even human in the end. Even the supporting roles are juicy and each player has his or her moment to shine. Simon Callow as the Reverend Beebe, Maggie Smith as dim Charlotte, Rupert Graves as the irascible Freddy Honeychurch, and Denholm Elliott as George's father give great life to their roles.
A ROOM WITH A VIEW was a launching point to stardom for several of these actors. Helena Bonham-Carter went on to become queen of the costume dramas for awhile before marrying Tim Burton and starring in his films such as SWEENEY TODD (2007) and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010). I fell in love with Bonham-Carter in A ROOM WITH A VIEW and she's still one of my favorite actresses today. Daniel Day-Lewis would catapult from small independent films like A ROOM WITH A VIEW to large scale blockbusters like THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992) and THE GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002). Denholm Elliot as Mr. Emerson will always be remembered as Dr. Marcus Brody in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) but he solidified his status as a great character actor with A ROOM as did Maggie Smith as cousin Charlotte Bartlett who even my kids now know her for her portrayal of Professor Minverva McGonagall in the HARRY POTTER series.
The scenery of Italy and Florence is the last great character in A ROOM WITH A VIEW and what sets this film apart from Merchant/Ivory's other films. Italy represents romance and freedom and vitality. Whereas England is formality and manners and class structure, Italy is passion and sensuality and life. Other films have capitalized on this metaphor of Italy as romance and freedom, most notably ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953), ENCHANTED APRIL (1992) and UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (2003).
After I saw ROOM, I could not wait to see what literary adaptations Merchant/Ivory would film next and I was positive it would be greater and more entertaining than ROOM. But none of their subsequent films ever captured my movie heart like A ROOM WITH A VIEW. A recent viewing delighted me with new things I never picked up on before even as I smiled at scenes I never get tired of. If I could travel to Florence with this cast of characters, I would in a heartbeat. I would have tea with the Reverend Mr. Beebe. I would listen to Lucy Honeychurch play the piano. I would walk the streets of Florence with Eleanor Lavish. And at my pensione, I would ask for a room with a view.