Producer Ismail Merchant and Director James Ivory, better known collectively as Merchant Ivory, are known for their lavish costume dramas. While they had been making films since the 1960's, the first film to gain them any kind of major notoriety was their adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Room With A View. Starring a then-unknown Helena Bonham Carter at the head of a cast of notable British character actors, the film was a major hit the world over, winning several Academy Awards in both England and America and being nominated for many more. Now, 22 years later, the film has been released on both HD DVD and Blu-ray.
Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), a rich and well to do English girl, takes a vacation in Florence with her cousin and caretaker, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). While there, Lucy meets a young man by the name of George Emerson (Julian Sands), who, while out on a picnic, kisses her. Upon discovering this, Charlotte whisks Lucy off to Rome and eventually back to England. Once there, Lucy accepts the marriage proposal of Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day Lewis), a well groomed but awkward man. Lucy's life seems set until George and his father rent a cottage on Lucy's family property, forcing her to re-examine what she really wants in this world.
E.M. Forster's novel was written at the turn of the 20th Century, when English society was just learning how to come out from the ironclad grip of Victorianism. At the time, the novel was a harsh critique of a country that was trying desperately to hold on to standards of etiquette and decorum that Forster saw as increasingly restrictive. This the novel was seen as a rebellious cry for youth. Looking at it now, where people are encouraged to say what they feel and do as they please, it feels antiquated. Of course Lucy should run off with George, a modern audience member is more than likely to think. Why wouldn't she?
The film does an excellent job of setting up the pressures placed upon a British lady of the period. In particular, Maggie Smith is brilliant as the old-fashioned and repressed Charlotte. With just a few words, she conveys all that is wrong with English social conventions. Daniel Day Lewis is also a standout with his take on Cecil. As a member of the old guard, he certainly is an ill fit for Lucy, but he's not so far gone that he can't perhaps find his own way in the grand scheme of things.
This was an early film for Helena Bonham Carter, and indeed the one that set the course of her career for many years to come. That being said, she's not especially good. She's flat and often seems to be reacting instead of acting. More than that, though, she plays Lucy as someone who for the most part accepts the very aspects of English life that she's meant to be running away from. I know it's a story about repression, but she seems to enjoy it as much as she resists it. Julian Sands is just a sheer joy to watch, as he is in practically every film he's in.
As I mentioned before, Merchant Ivory are best known for their detailed depictions of times now past. A Room With A View is no exception. The sweeping views of Italy are beautifully rendered, and the costumes are perfect, probably down to the stitching. The fateful pond in which Lucy's brother Freddie bathes is picturesque and lush. On the other hand, James Ivory's actual filmmaking technique feels a little too precious for my taste. In particular, the score overlaid on top of the film often feels far too beatific for the events actually occurring on screen. Often we'll have a perfectly good dialogue scene ruined by the incessant whining of the strings, which appear so often as to lose all impact.
Even with Ivory's penchant for affectation, there's still a solid little film in A Room With A View. I don't necessarily think it's quite as great many feel it is, but there's no denying that the production values and acting are first rate. This is worth seeing at least once in your life.
The Blu-Ray Disc:
Okay, so A Room With A View is a low budget British film from 1985. I say this to give you some idea of how much you should be lowering your expectations for the picture quality. Got it? Now go ahead and just throw those expectations right out the window, too, because this 1.85:1 VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer looks awful. Colors are washed out and faded. There's dirt and scratches on the print. I can even notice some jitter in many of the scenes. Detail is low, and in dark scenes it's even worse. There's practically nothing to recommend about the transfer on this disc.
The BBC has generously given us a DTS-HD (otherwise known as standard lossy DTS) 5.1 mix for this release, but it doesn't amount to much. Aside from the score and a few environmental effects (rainfall and such), the surrounds are almost never used. This is about as stereo of a mix as you can get. Also, it's showing its age and badly. Dialogue is harsh, and it's very easy to tell when they've used ADR. Like the picture, this does no justice to the work that was put into the film.
All of the special features are in 480p. Almost all of them are period clips from BBC television, and as such are of rather low picture quality.
- Commentary with Producer Ismail Merchant, Director James Ivory, Director of Photography Tony Pierce-Roberts and Actor Simon Callow: This low-key commentary is almost as held back as the characters in the film. Merchant and Ivory dominate the proceedings with light reminiscences. Callow jumps in every so often and Pierce-Roberts is hardly heard at all. Much of the commentary is devoted to listening to the men simply watch the movie. Not very engaging at all.
- Interviews with Actors Simon Callow and Daniel Day Lewis: These are interviews from when the film was shot. They're from a BBC morning show called "Breakfast Time." They're both very brief and insubstantial. Of the two, Daniel Day Lewis has the better one, but neither are anything revelatory.
- Breakfast Time Report On UK Films In The U.S.: Another snippet, this time on the success of A Room With A View in America. There are some hilarious interviews here with New Yorkers coming out of the theater, having just seen the movie.
- Film '96 Profile On Merchant Ivory: A short retrospective on the Merchant Ivory history. Included are achingly brief interviews with Greta Scacchi, Hugh Grant, and Helena Bonham Carter.
- EM Forster Remembered: A half-hour tribute to the author shortly after his death. Included are remembrances by friends, commentary by critics, and more.
- Film Scrapbook: A photo gallery with the film's insufferable music playing on top.
A Room With A View is one of the most highly regarded period pieces of all time. And with the film's attention to detail and stellar cast, it's easy to see why. While I do think James Ivory's filmmaking can be a little too much of a good thing, this is a film that is worth seeing. However, I wouldn't recommend watching this Blu-ray disc, as both the sound and picture are terrible. And while it does have a few extras, there's not much substance to them. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.