Friday, September 25, 2015

Movie Review - A Room with a View

A Room with a View
Based on the book by E.M. Forster
Starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Daniel Day-Lewis, Simon Callow, Rosemary Leach, Rupert Graves, Patrick Godfrey, Judi Dench, Fabia Drake, Joan Henley, Amanda Walker, Maria Britneva, Mia Fothergill, and Peter Cellier
Release Date: December 13th, 1985
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Lucy Honeychurch is visiting Florence with her cousin and chaperon Charlotte Bartlett. They are there merely as tourists, and as tourists they expected a room with a view at their pension, which they don't have. A forward, if tactless man, Mr. Emerson, offers the ladies his and his son's rooms, which both have delightful views. Charlotte is insistent they refuse the offer and then snub the men. But the Reverend Mr. Beebe says that they should feel free to take the offer of the rooms, and so they do. The Emersons are omnipresent to Lucy, they are at the church she ventures into to look at the frescoes, young George rescues her after she witnesses a brutal murder in one of the squares, and they are on the fateful picnic outside Florence when George kisses Lucy. Charlotte sees the incident and whisks Lucy away to Rome. Things settle into their old routine back in England. Lucy becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse, a move that surprises no one. Life is much as it was, till a twist of fate, as George Emerson would put it, brings him and his father to this small town and back into Lucy's life. If Lucy thinks that her engagement will deter George, she is much mistaken. He knows that they are meant to be together and that Cecil is the type of man who goes about life never knowing anyone. Can Lucy face the lies she's been telling herself and everyone around her about her true feelings? Or will she live a life afraid of the passion and truth within her?

Despite being touted as the pinnacle of achievement in period films I have been coming to realize more and more that Merchant and Ivory productions aren't nearly the best out there. They take themselves far too seriously and they don't strive for balance, allowing the dour to overtake the levity necessary to create a satisfying and well rounded viewing experience. I think that this is a feeling that has been developing in me for quite some time. That is the only reason I can think of as to why I had no desire to watch A Room with a View. Not back when I first watched it, not even now when I rewatched it. This is a movie that could disappear off the face of the earth and I would have no opinion about it one way or another. The main fault lies in the leads. Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands have absolutely no chemistry at all. Without this passion the film is as cold as a dead fish.

In order to distract us from this failing the post production crew has filled the film with pretentious theatrics in order to make up for this passionless void. They think that by playing enough classical music loud enough that we will be stirred into the epicness of the passion and love awoken in Lucy and George, but instead it just focuses the spotlight on this failing. But the truly absurd device they use to make us "believe" in the grandness of the story is painted and pretentious cue cards announcing each section of the film. I should have guessed they were coming after the opening credits were presented as a laughable dramatis personae. Usually it is the chapter titles done in a Florentine flourish, but occasionally it's just superimposed over the film. Any way you look at it the intrusive nature of these cards dividing the film into "acts" smacks of the academic superiority that underlies the entire film and makes it a prime example as to why I don't like Merchant and Ivory all that much.

To continue with the film's pretension I want to discuss an odd little device they used throughout the film. The absurd lady novelist played by Judi Dench, instead of waxing lyrical over the city and Italy is obsessed with a scandalous story she has heard. How she has heard of it we never know, but she does know all the details. The story she tells happens to be E.M. Forster's first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread. While this little meta call out with it's self-referential humor should be an amusing nudge and wink to Forster fans, instead because of the superiority complex of the filmmakers it comes across as smug and self-indulgent. Plus, are they maybe hinting that Forster's first book was actually written by Eleanor Lavish? Because that is an insult. I can't help thinking that with Monteriano this and Monteriano that this movie would have been better served by filmmakers who were concerned with actually telling THIS story, not another story entirely. But if we are to talk of something that links the stories together let us talk about the violets and the COMPLETE OMISSION OF THEM! Violets are key to the beauty of Italy in both these stories by Forster, yet they are easily replaced in two scenes with Cornflowers, and in their most important scene, with the kiss between Lucy and George, they are completely missing. The description of these humble flowers by Forster add to the beauty of his story and are symbolic, and their omission is yet another sign of the filmmakers narrow vision wherein whatever they do is right, even if it does a disservice to the source material.

Going back to the other main problem, the lack of passion between the leads; this alone destroys the film and makes it deathly. Let's look at the scene where they kiss in Italy. Lucy is supposed to stumble onto George on the hillside and he embraces her. Instead it is staged like it's being acted with puppets. She stops, he sees her. Slowly he moves towards her, he kisses her, in the most dispassionate way ever, Maggie Smith screams. What the hell people!?! Is this some weird post modern take on romance? They are meant to be together, but we won't let the passion show, they will just inexorably and snail like move towards each other and part as if nothing had happened. Seriously, we are supposed to believe this is passionate? Cecil and Lucy's kiss has more spark and spontaneity about it, and he freakin' asks her permission! This one defining moment in Lucy's life should not be stilted and laughable. It should be her awakening that there is more to life. But than again, even the piano playing that is supposed to show her soul is oddly lacking, perhaps because it's obvious Helena Bonham Carter isn't playing... I really, I just can't even. I wonder if there was some point when the filmmakers went, hey, you know what? They have no chemistry, this movie is screwed. Ugh, seriously, Cecil is better than George, and that isn't a good thing.

But this "George Problem" I think falls completely at the feet of Julian Sands. Yes, I have a Julian Sands problem. He can't act. He is atonal. Plus he comes across as pretentious and upper class and suave and confident and even a little supercilious. In other words, everything George Emerson is not. He's put together, amused, and not a muddled mess. This I think is why there is no chemistry, his inability to act. The whole point of George is that he is everything Cecil is not. But the problem here is Cecil is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, someone who not only knows how to act, but runs rings around the rest of the cast, save Denholm Elliott. He brings depth and intrigue to the character of Cecil who we should hate and want out of Lucy's life. Instead you can't help thinking that Lucy would be far better off with Cecil. I mean, seriously people, how is Julian Sands still getting acting gigs? Have you see Warlock? I have, and it totally is proof as to why his screen actor's guild card should be revoked. If that isn't enough, how about Boxing Helena? And, oh dear, he's now on Gotham. More reasons never to watch that show again. All I have to say is at least we have Maggie Smith to provide some balance. You can never get too much Maggie Smith, as the filmmakers wisely knew. In fact they just started throwing her some of Lucy's parts just to keep her onscreen more, which was fine by me.

The only reason that this movie isn't completely flawed is that the comedic figures were so well cast that they were able to rise above the problems of the film. Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Denholm Elliott, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Simon Callow are the only reasons to watch this film. They bring the world that Forster wrote to life. They understand that life, and in particular Forster's writing, isn't just people in the throws of passion and life or death decisions, life is made up of foibles and comedic turns of phrase. Of making something humorous by the proper delivery or inflection, or even the tangling of a comedic prop. Life, like a good story, needs balance. Of all the adaptations I have watched so far the only one not to strip away all the humor of Forster's was Where Angels Fear to Tread, and that, far and away, was the adaptation I have enjoyed the most. The more I watch Merchant and Ivory films the more I realize why people for so long have denigrated period pieces. They take themselves too seriously and just don't get it. Humor is the ameliorant of life, without it, what's the point? So what is the point of this film eh?


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