Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Of all of the Merchant Ivory productions, A Room with a View was the most popular. And well
it should be, as it combines their impeccable knack for historical recreations of famous books with
an enviable comedic touch. Nobody's tongue is in their cheek, but with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's coy
screenplay reducing events to their humorous basics, a smile stays on our lips no matter how
seriously the Edwardians on screen take themselves.
Inexperienced wealthy Briton Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) encounters
both dramatic and romantic possibilities in Florence despite the stifling influence of her
chaperone, cousin Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). Back in Surrey she tries to avoid
forward-thinking Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) and his handsome son George (Julian Sands),
who back in Italy had the audacity to steal a kiss from her. Lucy's engaged now to the priggish
but wealthy Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis), but that arrangement isn't providing the shield from
George Emerson that she hoped it would.
It's hard to imagine a more imaginatively cast version of Forster's comedy of manners. Helena
Bonham Carter is an ingenue with (as Reverend Mr. Beebe says) "possibilities." Maggie Smith is
the impossible interfering spinster incapable of paying her own way or accepting anything foreign
in a foreign country. She has a couple of fine scenes with Judi Dench's hack romance novelist,
wandering the alleys of Florence. Daniel Day-Lewis shows his dedication by playing a dreadfully
unlikeable twirp of an Englishman, and investing his full measure of talent into him. And finally,
this is the movie to see Denholm Elliott as a life-loving free spirit, struggling at every
turn with the unyielding disapproval of society around him.
Julian Sands has the not-so easy role of the young man who shows Lucy that romance and propriety
don't have to go hand-in-hand. Along with Rupert Graves and an uninhibited Simon Callow, Sands has
a wild naked pond swim, where nobody (including the director) gives a hang about avoiding male nudity.
Displaying the Merchant Ivory knack for staging period scenes in exotic settings on a modest budget,
A Room with a View is one of those "Italy" pictures that give us the thrill of an idealized
Florentine vacation, even when the characters on-screen don't seem to be appreciating it. It's all in the
details: the desperation on the face of a youth stabbed in a public square, as if Lucy were witnessing a real staging
of Romeo and Juliet, or a young Italiana's disappointment when she's forced to walk home alone
from the stuffy English picnic. Lucy gets her romantic awakening in a hill covered with flowers. It's both
thrilling and funny when George sees her and closes in for his kiss. Lucy just stands there, unclear
as to what's happening, as if her entire life up to that moment has been based on the certainty
that nothing ever happens.
The little scenes back in England are a tangled series of awkward encounters, interrupted by humorous
illuminated intertitles: "Lucy Lies to Cecil." "Lucy Lies to George." Lucy arranges for a
cottage to be rented by two adorable spinster sisters (Fabia Drake and Joan Henley) but the
intolerable Cecil substitutes other tenants at the last minute. Charlotte wants to visit, and Lucy's
good-hearted mother (Rosemary Leach) sympathizes with her no matter how terribly she behaves. Snubbed
George Emerson and his father are about to retreat to London when Charlotte's snooping inadvertently
has a positive effect, for once. It's all charming and absorbing and rushes by so
fast it's difficult to believe the film is 117 minutes long.
Warner & CBS's double-disc set of A Room with a View completely overshadows what was reportedly
an older, flat and not very colorful existing release. The enhanced picture is breathtakingly perfect -
the studio stats say it was transferred with the director and cinematographer's input, from the
original negative. The sound is crystal clear.
The director, the producer, the cinematographer and actor Simon Callow contribute a lively commentary much
like the ones on the other Merchant Ivory series released by Home Vision Entertainment. On the
second disc, E.M.
Forster Remembered is a 30-year old long-form BBC documentary about the author that's both
informative and entertaining. A tribute to Merchant-Ivory is a featurette showing the producing
pair at work in London. There are also some good BBC snippet interviews with Simon Callow and
Daniel Day-Lewis (generously promoting a film that wouldn't directly reward his career) and a U.K.
report on the success of the film in the states. A cute lady with a NY accent tells the Brit reporter
she just swoons over the way English people speak English! There's also a photo gallery.
My review copy of this DVD came as two loose check discs, so I'm not going to have an opinion
about the packaging.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Room with a View rates:
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Producer Ismail Merchant, Director
James Ivory, actor Simon Callow and cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, E.M. Forster
Remembered BBC documentary, A tribute to Merchant-Ivory featurette, U.K. Archive
television promotional appearances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Simon Callow, BBC report on the
film's success in the U.S., Photo gallery, English, French, Spanish audio tracks.
Packaging: 2 discs in Keep case
Reviewed: March 22, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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