A Room With a View may be the quintessential Merchant-Ivory film. Based on a classic work of fiction? Check. Featuring a story in which most of the action is internal and emotional rather than external? Check. Shot in beautiful locations and with exquisite attention to period detail? Check. Boasting an ensemble case of A-list actors working for a fraction of their usual fee? Check. Edited in long takes that allow the actors to act and the story to breathe? Check.
Fortunately, A Room With a View is not just an examplar of the Merchant-Ivory style (it was the 18th film directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant, and their first E. M. Forster adaptation), but also a thoroughly enjoyable film. It was successful both critically and at the box office upon its initial release in 1986, and also picked up some big prizes, among them five BAFTAs (including Best Film) and three Academy Awards (for Art Direction, Costume Design, and Adapted Screenplay).
Merchant-Ivory films are noted for their beauty, and A Room With a View is no exception: Florence has never looked better on screen, and neither has the English countryside. Watching this film is like spending two hours in the company of English aristocrats who never have to worry about things like pleasing a difficult boss or paying off their student loans, let alone dodging bullets or wondering where their next meal is going to come from. This lack of mundane worries leaves them free to focus their energies on their emotional lives and social status, and when they manage to screw things up despite all their inherited privileges, that lets the rest of us enjoy a little Schadenfreude at their expense.
At the same time, we can sympathize with the characters in this film, because they’re dealing with issues that are still pertinent today. Take the central character of Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), who isn’t sure if she should yield to the urgings of her heart or obey the proprieties dictated by her cousin and chaperone, Charlotte (Maggie Smith). Does handsome George Emerson (Julian Sands) really love her, or does he just want to take advantage of her so he can brag to his friends about it? Women still struggle with this question today, but it’s magnified for Lucy, because in Edwardian England a proper young lady’s career consisted of making a good marriage, and one lapse in judgment (or even rumors about having made such a lapse) could destroy your chance of a happy future. Men, of course, did not suffer the same risk, and thus women had to be suspicious of any professed affection.
The character of Charlotte should also be familiar to viewers today—she’s a person who lacks basic human understanding and tries to make up for it with an excessive concern for following all the right rules. Charlotte is treated rather harshly in this film, as a figure of fun, but she’s also somewhat pitiful because she seems unable to ever be honestly present in a situation. In contrast, George’s father (Denholm Elliott) represents the wise voice of the older generation, willing to acknowledge human imperfection and understanding that sometimes people’s emotional needs should be given priority over observing social conventions. Although the obvious story line of the film is which of two suitors Lucy will marry, beneath it lies the question of what kind of a person she will be—one who hides behind rules and conventions, or one willing to follow her heart and take the consequences of wherever that choice may lead her?
Lucy’s two suitors also represent personality types still present in society today. George is an emo kid, all wrapped up in himself and his feelings while imagining he’s contemplating the big questions of life (as exemplified by his annoying habit of writing large question marks on everything). Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an aesthete who would not feel out of place in an MFA program, given his habit of pretentiously drops Italian phrases into conversation, his constant attempts to exert his superiority by putting down everyone and everything around him, and his appearance that suggests he’s auditioning for the role of Eustace Tilley.
The emotional pitch can run high in A Room With a View, but it’s also a very funny film, and one that observes its characters with some detachment. One way this detachment is expressed is through the use of ornate title cards that break the story into episodes (e.g., “In Santa Croce with no Baedecker”) that place the filmmakers in a position similar to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, enjoying the human carnival while at the same time proclaiming “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
The Criterion release features a newly restored 4K digital transfer of A Room With a View, produced from the 35mm original camera negative, which looks splendid. The extras package for this release is adequate but no more, which is disappointing considering that the extras are usually a strong selling point for Criterion discs. A 2015 documentary, “Thought and Passion” (21 min.) centers on production issues in A Room With a View and features director James Ivory, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, and costume designer John Bright.
The documentary “The Eternal Yes” (36 min.), also produced in 2015, features interviews with actors Helena Bonham Carter, Simon Callow, and Julian Sands. An excerpt (4 min.) from a 1987 episode of NBC Nightly News profiling Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant is also included on the disc, as is the film’s trailer. A 12-page illustrated brochure is included with the DVD, and features an essay by John Pym and information about the transfer process.