A young Englishwoman falls in love but doesn't realize it, in E.M. Forster's gently satirical romance set in Italy and England in the early twentieth century. Originally published in 1908, A Room With a View is a lighthearted tribute to all that Forster loved about Italy and family life in England, with the less cherished aspects of English society veiled in parody, much in the spirit of Jane Austen. Masterpiece Classic presents A Room with a View, airing Sunday, April 13, 2008, 9-10:30 pm ET on PBS.
Oh, no, I said to myself, when I saw that Masterpiece Classic was showcasing a new version of A Room With A View. Every movie loving cell in my brain rebelled at the thought. You must understand, gentle reader, that Merchant and Ivory’s production of A Room With a View with Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands was one of my favorite movie from the 80’s. I have seen it numerous times. I own the VHS tape. I have the DVD. I even bought the book by E.M. Forster.
Then I learned that Andrew Davies was having a go at another film adaptation of this little piece of cinematic perfection. Sacrilege! I literally slammed the DVD into my player and sat (with a surly expression) to view this upstart movie.
Who could top Maggie Smith as Cousin Charlotte in the 1985 film adaptation, I asked myself? Or Simon Callow as Mr. Beebe? Judy Dench played the definitive Eleanor Lavish, a novelist with many fixed opinions but very small talent. The two Miss Alens were adorable elderly ladies who I wanted as my own aunts. And Daniel Day-Lewis as foppy, effeminate Cecil Vyse not only created an unforgettable character, but successfully hid his sexy, masculine side (Think Last of the Mohicans.) Rupert Graves has caught my attention ever since his wonderful turn as Freddy, Lucy's brother. I last saw him as a Hollywood playboy in Death at a Funeral, with Darcy-hottie Matthew Macfadyen. Well I could go on. To my way of thinking, no movie ending could be more glorious than seeing a young and luscious Lucy/Helena, her thick dark hair flowing down her back, sitting in a window being showered with kisses by a delectable man. With the Duomo as a backdrop and the strains of an unforgettable soundtrack reaching a crescendo, how more romantic could a film ending get? Mr. Davies, on the other hand, confuses nudity with romanticism and sexuality, and although this scene was in the novel, he missed the mark entirely.
I watched this 2007 ITV movie adaptation twice. I had to. Lucy's hair started out short, then it became long, then it was short again. Oh, I said, finally getting it, Andrew Davies is using flashbacks. It seems he found a reference written by E.M. Forster: “Forster himself wrote a little postscript in 1958, 50 years after writing the book, imagining what might have happened to the characters. He imagined George Emerson visiting Florence after the Second World War, looking for the Bertolini boarding house". I won't give away the plot, but the ending of this movie is nowhere near anything that E.M. Forster had in mind for George.
My muted impression of this film is echoed by the color palette. The feeling of beige predominates, from the settings to the costumes to the musical score. Even the lush Tuscan countryside seems tepid. How this was accomplished puzzles me, for my recollections of Italy are of a country filled with riotous sights, sounds, smells, and colors, and people filled with passion and a zest for life. If Nicholas Renton, the director, and Andrew Davies wanted to depict the beigeness of Lucy's life before she found her passion, then color and sound should have predominated towards the end of the film. However, not all is lost. The film was shot entirely on location in Florence and Rome, and for this backdrop alone it is worth watching.
Be that as it may, on second viewing I started to appreciate this movie for some of its good qualities. In fact, had Merchant and Ivory not produced their gem twenty years ago, this new adaptation would stand up very well, and Mr. Davies would probably not have been prompted to alter the script in order to make his version stand out. Young Elaine Cassidy, though not beautiful, plays the role of Lucy convincingly. Miss Honeychurch's small rebellion against strict convention, and her restlessness and desire to break free from the mold and find her passion are paralleled by the setting of Florence, which represents the epitome of art, culture, and civilization in the Italian Renaissance. With this phrase - "We're here to see Italy, not meet Italians" - Cousin Charlotte echoes the thoughts of the other English tourists in the boarding house: that the Italians who live amongst all this splendor and were its creators, are uncouth and uncivilized. The British Empire, at the height of its power before WWI began to sap it of its economic strength, is represented by this snobbish group, who feels superior and entitled, and justified in imposing their values upon others, even the occupants of a foreign land.
The script also (rightly) points to the huge disparity in social class between the boarders, who represent the strictures of society, and Mr. Emerson and his son George, (Timothy Spall and Rafe Spall) who represent a free-wheeling, more open minded but vulgar, socialist class of people. Lucy is not only trapped between convention and her desire to break free, but she is sexually awakened by an uncouth young man. Any time Lucy's emotions get the better of her, she plays the piano with such passion, that one needs to use very little imagination to guess her internal state of mind.
By and large the actor Laurence Fox as Cecil Vyse fought an uphill battle and lost. He is too handsome and masculine to play Cecil; and his portrayal of this effete, effeminate snob did not oust my memory of Daniel Day-Lewis's comical yet sensitive interpretation of a man who, as Mr. Beebe described in veiled homosexual reference, "like me, [is] not the sort of man who should marry." The lovable Freddy is reduced to a mere cypher, and I don't recall that the camera ever lingered on Mrs. Honeychurch's face. If it had, I would have recognized Elizabeth McGovern playing the part sooner.The Miss Alens, too, were given short shrift. Having said that, I was pleased with the overall quality of the acting, for as I watched this production for the second time, I became engrossed in the story.
Sometimes, first impressions (as Elizabeth Bennet discovered all too well) are not what they seem. And so, I give this film a positive wave with my regency fan. However, this adaptation of A Room With a View is to the Merchant and Ivory production what the mini-series Scarlett was to the 1939 adaptation of Gone With the Wind: a pale imitation, or beige in this instance.
Six Degrees of Austen Adaptation Separation:
E.M. Forster, an unabashed Jane Austen fan, wrote: "Shut up in measureless content, I greet her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers". Thus we have a close connection between Jane and the author. In addition:
Sophie Thompson (Cousin Charlotte) enjoys several degrees of Austen adaptation separation:
One Degree: She performed as Miss Bates in Emma,1996, and Mary Musgrove in Persuasion, 1995.
- Sophie played Dorothy, the maid in Gosford Park. Maggie Smith, Sophie's costar, played Charlotte Trentham in Gosford Park. Maggie also played Cousin Charlotte in 1985's Room With a View, and Lady Gresham in Becoming Jane;
- Emma Thompson, Sophie's sister, played Elinor Dashwood in 96's Sense and Sensbility;
- Phyllida Law, Sophie's mother, played Mrs. Bates in Emma, 1996 and Mrs. George Austen in Miss Austen Regrets, 2007;
- As Lydia, the bride in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sophie costarred with Hugh Grant, who played Edward Ferrars in Sense & Sensibility, 1995 and Daniel Cleaver in the Bridget Jones's Diary movies;
- Anna Chancellor (Four Weddings and a Funeral) played Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, 1995; and as Jane Austen's descendant, she also hosted The Real Jane Austen, BBC, 2002.
- Hugh Grant (Sense and Sensibility) played opposite Frances O'Connor in the Importance of Being Earnest. Frances starred as Fanny Price in 1999's Mansfield park;
- Maggie Smith and Dame Judy Dench performed together in Ladies in Lavender. Judy Dench played Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, 2005, and as Eleanor Lavish in Room With a View, 1985. Maggie played Lady Gresham in Becoming Jane.
Mark Williams (Mr. Beebe)
One Degree: Played Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility, 2007;
Two Degrees: He played Wabash, the stutterer in Shakespeare in Love. Gwyneth Paltrow, the star of that movie, played the title role in Emma 1996;
Three Degrees: As Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter films, Mark enjoys three degrees of separation from Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman(Colonel Brandon, Sense and Sensibility, 96), Daisy Haggard (Anne Steele, Sense and Sensibility, 2007); and Imelda Staunton, (Mrs. Palmer, Sense and Sensiblity, 96.)
More about A Room With a View: