Friday, March 11, 2011

Beautiful "View"

If I could live within a movie, I think I would choose to live in the world of "A Room With A View". 

There's the lovely Italian countryside, the painterly vistas of Florence, and Richard Robbins lush rendering of Puccini's lilting melodies.  Then there's a handsome coachman at every turn, afternoon rain you can run through, cornflowers, and golden fields to ignite love's kindling. There is even the Italian temperament (and the occasional violent impulse) which I understand, but from which I would nevertheless have the protection of an idealistic, passionate and unconventional friend. There is timeless architecture, provocative art, and an inn with warmly quirky people as my friends and neighbors.

Then there's the English manor, drenched in summer light, giddy with youths exploding the absurd traditions of propriety.  The "politeness" of not saying what you mean is reproached with the gentle admonition to stop deceiving everyone.  There is the piano for revealing one's passions and for raucous duets with brotherly young men. 

There is lawn tennis.  There the "Sacred Lake" to play freely and with naked abandon, to delight in scandalizing buttoned-up passers-by.  There is the exciting weeks-long wait for real letters from friends overseas. There are the gorgeous rooms that look like museums for fine vases and intricate cabinets.  There are the novels we must read that are written by amusing acquaintances.  Within those novels our romantic secrets are revealed. 

Even supercilious snobs are welcome as obstacles to overcome, while one ventures from the safety of a room into the burgeoning wonder and passion of the world outside.

Lovers part with dignity, friends meet in front of Italian murals, stuffy chaperons redeem themselves for the sake of love, and intelligent men gently point out our deceptions and set us on the right course.

Yes, this could be a perfectly good world to inhabit!

~  ~

This classic film of E. M. Forester's "A Room With A View" , directed by James Ivory from an adaptation by the incredible Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a perfect rendering of the novel.  The film retains the book's satire, its textures and attention to detail, while softening its edges. With the efforts of an impeccable crew of designers, technicians and performers, the movie delights viewers with its forgiving eye, sharp ear, and heart full of affection.

I found this film in March 1986 soon after it was released in Phoenix Arizona, where I lived and looked after my grandparents.  My maternal Grandmother, a gentle Italian, had just passed away, one day after the Oscars. My cousins remained for moral support after the funeral.  One hot afternoon my older cousin and I decided to go to a movie.

I was aware of "A Room With A View" but knew very little about it, so I was a blank slate upon entering the theater.  It seemed like it would be soothing and nice to look at.

When the music and title cards came on the screen, I was instantly drawn into this world, and found myself moved, visually tantalized, and completely absorbed in thought and laughter, for the next two hours.

Afterward, I was not the same.  The best movies transform viewers, and I was willingly transformed.  I was sensitized to the beauties of my ancestral home like never before.  I forever connected Helena Bonham-Carter and "O Mio Babbino Caro" with this film, and opened my soul to Puccini.  

The sensual bathing scene at the Sacred Lake, presented naturally, with humor and without making a big deal over the nudity of the male swimmers, was a welcoming image for me in an era when "coming out" was still considered dangerous in the age of AIDS. 

The film deepened my appreciation for intelligent writing and the performers' delicate art of creating memorable characters.

Within this setting of beauty and texture and color and light, the work of the actors in this film should be regarded with pride by each as a career achievement.  

Maggie Smith is brilliant as the perfectly controlled chaperon who vexes her young charge at every turn.  I loved her explorations of the unfamiliar Italian streets with the carefree Judi Dench (also wonderful in a small role), breathing hilariously into a handkerchief after sampling the "true Florentine smell".  Smith's Charlotte has perfected the art of saying the opposite of what she means, using her expression to convey her true intent, as when she sits on the cold ground, offering her "mackintosh square" to Lucy as a means of  actually getting rid of her.

Denholm Elliott is the quintessential wise old Liberal, Mr. Emerson, so believable as a man who reads Byron and loves his son with fierce determination for his happiness. 

Julian Sands is appropriately enigmatic as the brooding and romantic George Emerson, screaming his creed from a fragile tree and unashamedly expressing his physical desire.

Daniel Day-Lewis disappears into the role of Cecil, Lucy's repressed and chilly fiancee.  Lewis gave an interview to British TV soon after the film's release, saying he felt sorrow for this unfortunate character, which he infuses with sympathy,giving his tenuous hold on Lucy much poignancy.  

Simon Callow as the Reverend Mr. Beebe is the familiar wise cleric, who nevertheless enjoys his earthy pleasures, chain-smoking and commenting on the life-potential of young ladies who play Beethoven.  I laughed when he claimed not to have heard of "The Way of All Flesh".   The script wisely changes his character from the novel, making him open and supportive, dropping his final harsh judgment of Lucy. 

Rupert Graves' flyaway hair is my favorite image of the cute and mischivous brother Freddy.

Helena Bonham-Carter is appropriately impetuous and awkward here as Lucy Honeychurch, one of my favorite movie heroines, "trying on" the roles society expects her to play before she finds happiness in just being herself.  She is translucent and beautiful, with endless brown hair and a look of perpetual adolescent ennui.  She holds her own in her scenes with the generous Maggie Smith (especially when she states that the ever-repentant Charlotte still manages to always forgive herself).  Her single best moment is a spontaneous laugh of sheer glee when she confronts George, Mr. Beebe, and her goofy brother Freddy frolicking in the lake.  I loved her then. 

At one point Lucy's mother (Rosemary Leach) compares Lucy to Charlotte, to Lucy's dismay.  This is a turning point in the film, helping us understand both characters better, and allowing us to surmiseCharlotte's entire romantic history.  Smith's look of contentment, reading Lucy's letter at the end, helps ease the regret that bleeds through at having lost a past love.  Thanks to Charlotte's final maneuver, Lucy has a chance to escape the repression that would lead her to "Easy Live and Quiet Die".

The church bells ring; Lucy and George have their view.  And this moviegoer was forever changed.


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  2. Just to wake up to that panorama once would make life worthwhile.

    A lovely post Tom, thank you.

  3. Thanks for reading my essay, Ben. I appreciate your support as always.