Sometimes, when you delve into a steady diet of a particular thing, you tend to want its polar opposite after a period of time: if you eat nothing but health food for a month, you may have a desire to sneak in a trip to McDonalds. If you read nothing but classic literature, you may find yourself wanting to pick up a comic book or Harry Potter novel.
In my case, after recently watching such lightweight movies like Transformers, Underworld and Knocked Up, I wanted a film that was a little more subdued, serious-minded and one with a little more heft to it. I had lent my copy of The Lives of Others out to my friend, so that was a no go. And fare such as Letters from Iwo Jima, Syriana or Children of Men, great films all, were ones that carried a little too much heft for my needs. So, I reached for what I thought would be the ideal go-between: the 1985 Merchant/Ivory production of E.M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View, now available on Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD from BBC Home Video.
A Room with a View is the tale of a young British woman named Lucy Honeychurch (played by a then 18-year old Helena Bonham Carter). The film opens with Lucy and her chaperon Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith) having just arrived in Florence, Italy for holiday only to discover that their room doesn’t have a decent view of the city (they would have hated the view I had at the Gershwin Hotel in Manhattan back in “02: an alleyway). When the two voice their displeasure at dinner, an English gentleman by the name of Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott), on holiday with his son George (Julian Sands), offer to exchange rooms with Lucy and Charlotte. Over the next few days, Lucy and George begin to get to know each other, which lead to an unexpected kiss from George when the two are alone in a field.
This “out of the blue” lip lock proves to be quite the shock, not only to Lucy but also Charlotte, who witnesses the kiss in action and quickly puts a stop to it. The kiss sets off some unexpected feelings in Lucy, but before she can do anything about said emotions, Charlotte whisks both the young girl and herself back to England. There, Lucy accepts the marriage proposal of the rather boorish Cecil (a hilarious Daniel Day-Lewis) and hopes that this will erase her burgeoning feelings for George. But when the Emersons wind up renting a home not far from where the Honeychurch family resides, she finds herself conflicted on whom to be with: the dull but stable Cecil or the passionate, free-spirited George.
Many of the familiar literary themes (sexual repression, examinations of class structures and cultural differences in Edwardian society England) that populated the novel have been carried over to the film adaptation as was its lighter tone and happy ending (Hey, I’m not giving anything away. If you can’t guess the end of the film by the time Cecil shows up, you need to get a new hobby). For all of its themes and cheeriness, the novel was definitely one of Forster’s lesser works. I will attest that it was well-written and it held my interest (I read it in 1986 after I saw the film so I had images of Helena Bonham Carter dancing in my head at the time.), but in the end, it didn’t stay with me for too long afterwards. This was hardly the impact I was expecting from such a revered work of literature.
Not surprisingly, I experienced those same feelings when watching the movie. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay adaptation is faithful to the book, while James Ivory directs at a leisurely pace, giving the story a lighter-than-air quality that cements the faithfulness to Forster’s source material. Therein lies the start of the film’s problems (at least for me, I know I am in the minority on voicing any sort of displeasure for this film): for all of the care put into this production, it really makes no real impact on the viewer.
The locations are wonderful, as are the performances by the excellent ensemble cast. Lewis, Smith, Elliott and Simon Callow as a priest are all standouts. But I never found myself emotionally invested in the characters or their situations. Ivory and Jhabvala could easily have remained faithful to the source material and please fans of the book even if they punched up the story with a little more dramatic heft and more importantly, a little more humanity. In comparison to later Merchant Ivory productions such as 1992’s Howards End, also based on a Forster novel, and especially 1993’s The Remains of the Day, this is one cinematic room with a pretty blasé view.
The 1080p/VC-1 (1.78:1 ratio) encoded picture on this 25GB Blu-ray Disc from BBC Home Video is in okay shape. The image exhibits a fair amount of film grain and largely comes off as somewhat soft, although daytime scenes in Italy and the England countryside are sharp and full of vibrant colors. Detail level is decent and compression is minimal. On the review copy I received, the image on more than one occasion jittered, as if someone had hit the machine handling the transfer.
The 1.5mbps DTS-HD audio track is more problematic. On the plus side, it offers a decent enough center channel for the dialogue and some spare but nice surround channel effects. Then there is the music. Every time there is music, the audio mix goes awry. A perfect example of the issues is a piece of opera music that appears repeatedly during the movie. When used, it comes across as shrill. Even worse, it manages to overwhelm a few scenes of dialogue. While I applaud BBC Video’s use of DTS-HD, I really wish they had paid a little more attention to how the film’s audio was being mixed.
Given both the film and book’s popularity, I found the supplemental material to be a bit on the lean side and, given the popularity of the ensemble cast, I feel that a great opportunity was missed on the disc producer’s part in doing a retrospective documentary on the film’s production and its popularity. A couple of the bonus bits are worth your time, but overall I felt like I was getting the Cliff Notes version of all things A Room with a View.
Director James Ivory, producer Ismal Merchant, director of Photography Tony Pierce-Roberts and actor Simon Callow provide a Feature-Length Audio Commentary. The track is a decent one, if a bit on the quiet side. The art house tag team of Merchant and Ivory provide the best bits on the track, about the origins of the production (the duo pitched the idea to American film studios, but they wanted the main character to be an American and also wanted the character of Charlotte dropped), while Roberts and Callow occasionally chime in with additional bits.
E.M. Forster Remembered is a half-hour tribute to the author that was originally broadcast on BBC back on July 14, 1970, a month after Forster passed on at the age of 91. Hosted by James Mossman, this black-and-white special takes a look at the man and his work and offers recollections from Forster’s friends and critics. I found this special to be the highlight of the bonus material presented on this disc.
A pair of separate Interviews (7:04), one with Simon Callow and the other with Daniel Day-Lewis, come next. Taken from the BBC Magazine Show “Breakfast Time” in July of 1985 (for Callow’s interview) and April 1986 (for Lewis right before the film’s Royal Premiere in London), these brief snippets have Callow discussing the production in Italy while Lewis talks about his character (appearing quite nervous during his interview). Another News Report from Breakfast Time (3:20), from June 30th, 1986, examines the film’s runaway success at the Paris cinema in Manhattan. All three of these are worth a look, but none of these segments are things you will end up watching more than once.
Rounding out the bonus material is a short news report entitled Film “96 Profile on Merchant/Ivory (5:12) which takes a look at the history of the filmmaking team. The last item is a Film Scrapbook (2:45) which is a slideshow of production and film stills set to the film’s theme music.
A Room with a View has enough going for it to give the movie a recommendation. I loved the performances by the cast, it has a solid story for a foundation and the production values and cinematography are first rate. Yet, it lacks the impact that fellow Forster film adaptations, 1984’s A Passage to India and 1992’s Howard’s End – easily the best of the big screen Forster adaptations – had in abundance. The Blu-ray Disc edition is decent enough for a rental, but its mediocre video and audio presentations and somewhat lacking supplements make this disc a tough one to recommend to anyone for a purchase besides the most devout of fans.
– Shawn Fitzgerald