“I don’t care what I see outside. My vision is within. Here is where the birds sing. Here is where the sky is blue.”
The above sentiment is what has gotten me through the worst moments of the past 11 months. Being confined to our homes – to staring at screens and being fearful of human interactions — has been trying. I think about the last vacation I took right before the pandemic hit, and all the things I took for granted. I replay glorious memories to keep me sane and to give my soul a stir. I look at photographs and relive trips I was fortunate to take. I remember traveling as a young man to meet my mom and dad in Florence – and walking through its crowded streets and seeing the looming façade of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore – the tolling of its bells ringing in my ear. Whenever I think of that memory I cannot help but to hear Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro.” The song is used at the beginning of the sumptuous Merchant/Ivory adaptation of E.M Forster’s “A Room with a View” (1985).
Even if you’ve seen it before, the emotions it will engender in you will be overwhelming. We all need a holiday. The fact that vacationing in Tuscany is pivotal to the first half of the film will shroud you in a warm nostalgic feeling. “This is not at all what we were led to expect,” says Charlotte – played by a delectably fussy Maggie Smith – the maiden cousin who is chaperoning the young Lucy Honeychurch on her first trip to Italy during the Edwardian era. She’s referring to a window overlooking a shut-off courtyard – but she could also be talking about the hermetical constriction of an English society upbringing which is bound by decorum and restraint. Passions are running deep inside young Lucy and the city that gave birth to the Renaissance is bringing them to the surface. The clergyman Beebe listens to her play Beethoven and comments, ‘If she ever takes to living as she plays, it will be very exciting -both for us and for her.” Fellow Brits Mr. Emerson and his son George are staying in the same pensione. They’re a stark contrast to the other English travelers – they come across as sensible and in touch with their feelings. During an idyllic picnic in a Tuscan field of wheat and poppies, young George Emerson impulsively kisses Lucy and everything turns topsy turvy.
Lucy returns to England and gets engaged to the socially suitable Cecil Vyse – who is not in love with Lucy but sees her as an acquisition. “He doesn’t know what a woman is,” she’s told. “He wants you for a possession, something to look at, like a painting or an ivory box.” As coincidence will have it, Mr. Emerson and his son run into Cecil at the National Gallery (in front of an Italian painting) and find out there’s a cottage for rent near his property – and this will bring them closer to Lucy.
Working from a crisp adaptation by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala which earned her first of two Oscars (the second was for Forster’s “Howard’s End”) directed by James Ivory and produced by his partner Ismail Merchant, this movie is the equivalent of an elegant, funny and romantic vacation. The scenes in Italy are warmly photographed – capturing a Florence that is sensual and earthy. When we travel to England the visuals remain as beautiful but now there’s a gentility and a sense of formality to the proceedings. In the middle of the film there’s one of my favorite passages. Upon arriving to their new home, George and his father are visited by Lucy’s brother, Freddy and Reverend Beebe. Freddy’s first word upon seeing George is to ask him for a swim. “That’s the best conversation opening I’ve ever heard,” comments the clergyman. “How do you do. Come and have a bath.” The three men head over to a nearby pond and takes off their clothes and start to swim. Soon they start roughhousing and frolicking naked. Eventually they will chase one another around the pond as if they were on a Greek vase. It’s chastely homoerotic.
The cast is exemplary. This was the film that made a star out of Helena Bonham Carter and she’s commanding in the complex role of Lucy – who is struggling with all of the demands imposed on her while wanting to break free. Judi Dench appears briefly but magnetically as Eleanor Lavish – a novelist and traveler who encourages Lucy and her chaperone Catherine to forgo travel books and enjoy getting lost. Simon Callow is irrepressible as Beebe. Dame Maggie Smith earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her delightful turn. At first unrecognizable is Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil. He’s perfect, nebbishy and uptight. Watching him walk with a book in hand is priceless, and the way he fusses with his spectacles is hilarious. This was his breakout year – showing his range in a polar opposite role of a punk in “My Beautiful Launderette.” My favorite performance belongs to Denholm Elliott as George’s father – who encourages the young lovers to live life to the fullest. To stop questioning and give in to emotions. He exclaims, “Then make my boy think like us. Make him realize that by the side of the everlasting ‘Why?’ there is a Yes–a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.” His tender work earned him a nomination for Best Supporting actor.
Eleanor Lavish : “Smell! A true Florentine smell. Inhale, my dear. Deeper! Every city, let me tell you, has its own smell.”
Available to stream on HBO, HBO NOW and HBO Max. Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes and Vudu.
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the novel by E.M. Forster
Directed by James Ivory
Starring Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis, Fabia Drake, Patrick Godfrey, Rupert Graves, Joan Henley and Rosemary Leach
Director James Ivory on Bringing “A Room With a View” to the Screen
“A Room With a View” was rather easy to get made except that … well, there’s a backstory: Satyajit Ray wanted to make a film of Forster’s “A Passage to India.” He even went to visit Forster when Forster was still alive and brought his films to show him. Forster would never allow any of his novels to be made into films. But Ray thought he could persuade him to let him do “A Passage to India.” Ray said that Forster liked the films but still said no. Then Forster died and Ray kind of changed his mind about the book. Anyway, we got a message from Forster’s estate at King’s College in Cambridge inviting us to come up and have lunch. They wanted to talk to Ismail and me. We knew they were probably going to offer us “A Passage to India.” We had just done “Heat and Dust” , which was a big success. But we had already decided that we wanted to do “A Room With a View.” So we went and had a wonderful lunch at King’s College, and they did in time offer us the rights to “A Passage to India.”…we had already done Raj-period India with “Heat and Dust,” and by that time, I wanted to go back to Italy to make a movie. I hadn’t been there for 20 years. So we asked if we could instead have the rights to “A Room With a View,” and their faces fell. [Bollen laughs] It was like, “What? That little novel? Why would you want to do that if you could do A Passage to India?” But we were decisive, and they said all right.” (interviewmagazine.com)
About Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Germany, emigrated to England, and earned a degree in English literature from London University. In 1951 she moved to India after marrying an Indian architect; there, they raised three daughters. Since 1955 she has written a dozen novels, many of them set in India, including “The Nature of Passion,” “Esmond in India,” “Travelers and The Householder,” the last of which was her first motion picture project with Merchant Ivory Productions. Her first collaboration with director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant on an original project was for “Shakespeare Wallah,” a film now widely regarded as a classic. She has also adapted such novels as Henry James’ “The Europeans” and “The Bostonians” for the Merchant Ivory team, as well as writing original screenplays such as “Roseland” and “Jefferson in Paris” set in Europe and America. In 1975, Jhabvala won Britain’s Booker Prize for her novel “Heat and Dust,” and in 1984 she won a BAFTA award for Best Screenplay for the Merchant Ivory film adaptation of “Heat and Dust.” In 1986, she received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for A “Room With a View” and in 1990 she won the Best Screenplay Award from the New York Film Critics Circle for “Mr.& Mrs. Bridge.” Jhabvala received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Howards End” and was nominated for an Oscar for her adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day.” A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Jhabvala has also had three short story collections published, in addition to nine novels. In 1984 she received a MacArthur Foundation Award and in 1994, she received the Writers Guild of America’s Screen Laurel Award, which is the Guild’s highest honor. (merchantivory.com)
About Author E.M. Forster
The British novelist and literary critic E. M. Forster was born on New Year’s Day 1879 in London. His architect father died young, leaving Forster and his mother enough money to be comfortable for the rest of their lives. In 1883, they moved to the house in Hertfordshire which would become the inspiration for “Howards End” (1910). Forster was unhappy at Tonbridge School, but enjoyed himself far more at King’s College Cambridge. Having no urgent need to make a living on graduation, he travelled with his mother in Italy, gathering the inspiration for “A Room with a View” (1908). His critically successful first novel, “Where Angels Fear to Tread” (1905) also has Italian themes; his favourite of his own novels was “The Longest Journey” (1907). Between 1910 and 1913 he wrote “Maurice,” a novel which reflected his own – then illegal – homosexuality. But though he made a large donation to the Homosexual Law Reform Society in the 1960s and occasionally wrote articles advocating reform, “Maurice” was not published until the year after Forster’s death (1971). Forster was at his happiest during a two-year relationship with a young policeman called Bob Buckingham who later married; despite Buckingham’s marriage, the two men remained friends. Forster also travelled twice to India in 1912 and 1921; the trips helped him begin and complete “A Passage to India” (1924), which has since been read as an important early document of post-colonialism. Forster was a member of the literary ‘Bloomsbury set’, and a perceptive critic. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that ‘he says the simple things that clever people don’t say; I find him the best of critics for that reason’. In the 1930s, he became an increasingly prominent public voice for what the academic Lord Annan described as ‘liberal humanism’. On the eve of the Second World War he published one of his most famous essays, ‘Two cheers for democracy’, later called ‘What I believe’. He also collaborated with Eric Crozier on the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera “Billy Budd” (1951); and though he refused permission during his life, enormously popular films were made of his books after his death. Though Forster refused a knighthood in 1949, he accepted a Companion of Honour in 1953, eight honorary degrees, and the Order of Merit on his 90th birthday. He died in 1970, having spent the last 25 years of his life as an honorary fellow of King’s College Cambridge. (bl.uk)
About Director James Ivory
James Ivory was born in Berkeley, California and educated at the University of Oregon, where he majored in Architecture and Fine Arts. His first film, which he wrote, photographed and produced, was “Venice: Theme and Variations,” a half-hour documentary made as a thesis film for a degree in cinema from the University of Southern California. Ivory’s evocation of the city was named by The New York Times in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year. An easy rapport with India was evidenced in Ivory’s second film, “The Sword and the Flute,” based entirely on Indian miniature paintings in American collections. Its success led to a grant by the Asia Society of New York to make “The Delhi Way,” a film about the Indian city. In 1961, Ivory teamed up with Ismail Merchant to form Merchant Ivory Productions. Their first theatrical feature was “The Householder,” based on an early novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who also wrote the script. The seventeen theatrical films that Ivory has made for Merchant Ivory Productions include the classic “Shakespeare Wallah” and more recent films such as the two Henry James productions, “The Europeans” and “The Bostonians,” “Heat and Dust,” from another novel by Ruth Prawer “Jhabvala,” “A Room With a View,” and “Maurice,” from the novels by E.M. Forster. “A Room With a View” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won three, for Jhabvala’s adaptation of Forster’s novel as well as for Best Costume and Best Production Design. A Room With a View was also voted Best Film of 1986 by the Critic’s Circle Film Section of Great Britain, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the National Board of Review in the United States and in Italy, where the film won the Donatello Prize for Best Foreign Language Picture and Best Director. In 1987, Maurice received a Silver Lion Award for Best director at the Venice Film Festival as well as Best Film Score for Richard Robbins and Best Actor Awards for co-stars James Wilby and Hugh Grant.
After Maurice, James Ivory returned to the United States for two American films. The first of these was “Slaves of New York,” based on the stories by Tama Janowitz (1989). This was followed by Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, which was adapted by Ruth Jhabvala from the novels by Evan S. Connell. This film received an Oscar nomination for best Actress (Joanne Woodward), as well as Best Actress and Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle. Ivory’s next project was “Howards End” in 1992, based on the E.M. Forster novel. Howards End was nominated for nine Academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won three: Best Actress (Emma Thompson), Best Screenplay – Adaptation (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Luciana Arrighi/Ian Whittaker). The film also won Best Picture at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards, as well as awards for Best Picture, Best Actress for Emma Thompson and Best Director for Ivory from the National Board of Review. The Directors Guild of America awarded the D.W. Griffith award, its highest honor, to Ivory for his work. This was followed by “The Remains of the Day,” filmed in England in Fall 1992. It reunited Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the starring roles of Stevens and Miss Kenton. Jefferson in Paris was Ivory’s next project, released in 1995 and starring Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi and Simon Callow. Ivory’s next film was “Surviving Picasso,” starring Anthony Hopkins as Picasso, Natascha McElhone as Françoise Gilot and Julianne Moore as Dora Maar. (merchantivory.com) His other films include “Lumière and Company” (1995), “Surviving Picasso” (1996), “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries” (1998), “The Golden Bowl” (2000), “The Divorce” (2003), “The White Countess” (2005) and “The City of Your Final Destination” in 2009. A few of his screenplays include “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries” (1998), “The Divorce” (2003), “Call Me by Your Name” (2017) and most recently “American Marriage” in 2019.