Editor’s Note: In this feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great — in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.
There’s a moment in “A Room with a View” that’s one of cinema’s most rapturous; if you’ve seen this enchanting 1985 Merchant-Ivory romance based on an E.M. Forster novel, you know the scene I mean. We’re on an Italian hillside near Florence, sometime around the turn of the last century; wildflowers peek out from the tall grasses. A young man, George Emerson (Julian Sands), gazes at the landscape while fanning himself with his straw hat, as a young woman, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), approaches him. An aria from Puccini’s “La Rondine,” sung by soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, fills the warm afternoon air with shivery, delicate longing.
A kiss is inevitable in this romantic setting, but when it comes, it’s not quite fantasy: Lucy stumbles a bit as she walks toward him on the uneven ground; George awkwardly grabs her as he pulls her to him. (“For a moment he contemplated her,” the book reads, “as one who had fallen out of heaven.”) But they have, in those seconds before Lucy’s horrified chaperone intervenes, a tiny epiphany of truth, of beauty, of love; you watch thinking that you just might explode from joy.
And that’s “A Room with a View,” in a perfectly costumed nutshell: truth, beauty, love. Masterfully adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (the witty title cards are all Forster), it’s the story of how young Lucy first resists love. Though she flees home from her overseas travels and gets engaged to a safely bookish twit (Daniel Day-Lewis), she finally learns to stop lying to herself and realizes that freethinking George — a man who literally shrieks “Truth! Beauty! Love!” from the treetops — is her happy ending.
Truth and love will out, as they should — and beauty, in this film, is everywhere. It’s in the faces of the cast, particularly the young lovers. (Bonham Carter, in only her second movie performance, was just 19. She’s not yet the skilled performer that she later became, but it doesn’t matter a whit.) It’s in the lingering shots of statuary-laden Italian piazzas, or the view of the river Arno to which a dazzled Lucy awakes. It’s in the detail of the Edwardian costumes — there’s an evening gown, worn by Lucy later in the film, whose encrusted lace seems made by angels — and the glorious music and the always perfect light. The films from the team of Ismail Merchant (producer) and James Ivory (director), with Jhabvala as their too-often-unacknowledged third member, were always exquisite; this one, early in their run and their first breakout hit, set the standard.
Like all Merchant-Ivory efforts, “A Room with a View” is perfectly cast; a chocolate-box of pleasures. Look — that’s Judi Dench, bringing swagger and eccentric joy to the small but vivid role of lady novelist Miss Eleanor Lavish. Listen — to the wonderfully oaked tones of Simon Callow as the Reverend Mr. Beebe, who makes every word seem like a sumptuous meal. (I love hearing him as he examines the Emersons’ library, pronouncing with lush satisfaction the titles of “A Shropshire Lad” and “The Way of All Flesh.”) Watch — as a young Day-Lewis manages to make Cecil both silly and yet sweetly, impossibly vulnerable.
And marvel — the great Maggie Smith, known to many these days as the imperious Dowager Countess of “Downton Abbey,” plays the chaperone Charlotte Bartlett, with a masterful array of pursed lips, grimly set shoulders, suspicious glances and worried flurries of words. (Nothing gets by Charlotte — “In my small way I am a woman of the world” — or so she thinks.) She’s a comic figure, and yet Smith indicates with the subtlest of touches that Charlotte has her own youthful romantic story, locked tightly in her past.
“A Room with a View” is, astonishingly, 35 years old this year. I remember seeing it at the Seven Gables long ago, when I was near Lucy’s age. It thrilled me then and it thrills me now — though maybe in slightly different, more poignant ways. The Gables is long closed and now quietly decaying; the Merchant-Ivory days are no more (Merchant died in 2005, and their style of filmmaking has sadly gone out of fashion); the “Room with a View” cast are now middle-aged, old or gone. (Rest in peace, Denholm Elliott and Rosemary Leach.) But while watching “A Room with a View,” all of us are young again. May it live forever.
“A Room with a View,” directed by James Ivory, 1985, 117 minutes, not rated (due to a famous and very innocent scene of full-frontal frolicking male nudity, at an Edwardian swimming hole). Available on DVD/Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection (both Seattle Public Library and King County Public Library have copies), or via streaming on HBO, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu.