A Room With a View

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THE HISTORICAL/LITERARY BACKGROUND

This review and notes are based on the Merchant Ivory Film of A Room with a View, which  was directed by James Ivory and produced in 1986.  It is based on the novel of the same name, which was written by E.M. Forster in the early 1900s and set in 1907, at the end of the Edwardian era.  This was a moment in British history when Britain was still an imperial power.  It is an old love story with a happy ending (much like Pride and Prejudice).  The film was shot on location in Tonbridge Wells, Kent and in Florence, Italy.  In 1987 the film won three Oscars (and a further six nominations) and also won five BAFTA Awards and one Golden Globe.

THE STORY

Lucy Honeychurch, a young English lady, is on a visit to Florence in Italy, chaperoned by her cousin Miss Charlotte Bartlett.  They had been led to believe that they would have a wonderful view at the Pensione Bertolini, but this is not the case when they arrive.  Another couple, a father and son, overhear them when they express their dissatisfaction and they promptly offer to exchange rooms.  Charlotte is offended at this presumption for her young cousin’s sake, especially when the young man is dangerously attractive.  However, the Reverend Beebe, the rector of Lucy’s parish at home in England, happens to be staying there as well.  He offers to act as an intermediary and the rooms are exchanged without further ado.

The next morning, Charlotte tours the city with Eleanor Lavish, a lady novelist whom she had met at dinner the night before.  Lucy goes for a walk alone and she witnesses a violent street fight where a young man is seriously injured.  She becomes weak and faints from the shock.  Luckily, George Emerson, the young man she had met in the Pensione, is there to help her back to her room.

The following day, the visitors in the Pensione arrange to go sightseeing as a group and the Emersons also are part of the group.  George and Lucy become separated from the others and he kisses her in a cornfield.  Charlotte witnesses what happened between them and after they return to the city she arranges for them to leave their rooms the next day.  The women agree not to tell anyone what has happened to Lucy.

Back in England, Lucy accepts a proposal of marriage from Mr. Cecil Vyse, who is a rather pompous, arrogant snob.  By a chance arrangement, the Emersons take a house in the area, close to the Honeychurch residence.  Lucy’s brother Freddy, and the Rector, Mr. Beebe, invite George to go swimming in a nearby ‘lake’ on his first day in Summer Street.  The men are quite spirited, and they chase each other around the lake for fun.  Unfortunately, this occurs at the same time as the ladies are taking their afternoon walk in the woods and they see the men in all their naked glory!

Now that George has arrived and Freddy befriends him, he is invited to the Honeychurch home regularly to play tennis.  Lucy is perturbed by George’s renewed proximity.  The contrast between George and the stuffy Cecil is very obvious and this unsettles Lucy.

When Charlotte comes to stay with the family, she is very concerned for Lucy in case the presence of George will do harm to her engagement to Cecil.  One day, Cecil is reading and criticising what he considers to be a dreadful novel and both Lucy and George are listening.  The book happens to be by Eleanor Lavish, the woman who stayed in the same pensione in Florence as they did.  The novel is set in Florence and Cecil reads a paragraph describing exactly where and when George kissed Lucy.  On the way back into the house, George kisses Lucy again out of sight of the others.

Lucy is upset by this and hurt that Charlotte has told Eleanor Lavish after they had agreed not to tell anyone about what had occurred in Italy.  Lucy asks George in the presence of Charlotte to leave.  George gives a passionate account of his love for her and tries to make her see that Cecil only cares for her as he would a prize possession.  Lucy denies the fact that she may love George, but all the same, she breaks off her engagement with Cecil soon after this.

When George sees that Lucy will not have him, he decides to leave Summer Street because he cannot bear to be near her.  Lucy is surprised and shocked to see the furniture being removed from the house.  Mr. Emerson talks to her and makes a heartfelt plea to her to stop denying the truth.  Realisation dawns on her that she does love George after all and the film ends with the two lovers on their honeymoon back in the Pensione Bertolini in Florence.  They kiss passionately at the window of A Room with a View.

THEMES 

The themes which we will consider and touch on here are: Love versus hatred, The importance of social class and self-deception and self-realisation.

A Room with a View, deals with the discovery that real love is a powerful and regenerative force: essentially it is a love story with a happy ending.  In the film, Lucy Honeychurch experiences a transition from a superficial understanding of love to a full understanding of its power and potential.  The film uses many devices to illustrate this change:

  • The language of the characters
  • Their actions and gestures
  • The symbolic use of landscape and flowers
  • The metaphor of a room with a view.

Unlike a play and a novel, which rely heavily on the reader’s ability to interpret the subtlety and significance of images or references made in the texts, A Room with a View can guide the viewer to their meaning by using effective cinematography.

In the opening sequence of the film, the courtyard view which Lucy has from her window is very disappointing.  She was expecting a spectacular view of Florence and this indicates to the viewer Lucy’s desire for new experiences.  The room with a view becomes a metaphor for Lucy’s desire to live an exciting and full life.

Lucy’s disappointment with the restricted view is captured by the close-up camera shot of her face.  This is intensified by her costume and by the incessant chatter of her cousin Charlotte.

In the dinner sequence, the camera focuses on a large question mark which George Emerson has arranged with the food on his plate.  He deliberately shows this question mark to Lucy so that it becomes a symbolic representation for the viewer of their quest to find a meaningful and passionate existence.

The film clearly shows, even in the opening sequences, that the conventions which govern English society are useless in Italy.  This is reflected in the open and direct manner of Mr. Emerson who offers Lucy and Charlotte the opportunity to change rooms.  Mr. Emerson’s passionate plea that they should have a view indicates his emotional nature and affinity with the workings of the human heart: ‘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.’

To emphasise Emerson’s passionate nature even further, the camera focuses on his face, which changes from a look of congeniality when he first suggests the switch, to a rising colour in his cheeks and a pleading look in his eyes.  The shot also captures his emphatic gesture of beating his chest with his fork as he speaks, to indicate that his heart is where he feels life most powerfully.

The dialogue between Lucy, Charlotte, Mr. Beebe and the Misses Alan, as they discuss Mr. Emerson’s proposal, illustrates the conflict between the dictates of society and individual free will.  Miss Catherine Alan’s opinion, that things which are indelicate can sometimes be beautiful, is a philosophy which Lucy adopts for her stay in Italy.

When Charlotte accepts the Emerson’s offer, she takes the larger of the two rooms for herself, explaining to Lucy that it belonged to George: ‘In my small way I am a woman of this world and I know where things can lead to.’

The ambiguity of this statement is apparent and hints at the physical attraction which exists between Lucy and George.  It is also quite a pathetic statement, and though the viewer is not prone to like Charlotte at this stage in the film because of her ramrod stature, her severe hairstyle and her irritating personality, it does evoke a sense of empathy with her for her repressed emotions.

This shot is followed by the image of Lucy lying on the bed the next morning with a vertical strip of sunlight partly illuminating her face and body.  This sensual image is enhanced when she rises from the bed and opens the window onto a panoramic view of Florence.

These images of Lucy along with her passionate piano playing indicate her desire to be free to experience all aspects of life and also to be free from the constraints and petty rules of society.

The sequence of shots in Santa Croce illustrates the Emersons rejection of social norms and the religious hypocrisy of people like the Rev. Cuthbert Eager.  Mr. Emerson even makes fun of Giotto’s frescoes because he sees no truth in them.  While this statement might appear like ignorance to art historians or religious zealots, it is not meant to be blasphemous; rather it reflects his belief that spirituality alone, faith without emotion, cannot sustain the human heart.

 The close-up camera shots which move rapidly from fresco to fresco illustrates their disproportion to real life figures.  These shots can be contrasted with the opening of this sequence where, through a high camera angle, Lucy wanders through the vast space of the church on her own.  This contrast emphasises Lucy’s individualistic nature, which instinctively reacts against society’s expectations.  This point is also highlighted in her dialogue with Mr. Emerson who pleads with her to help his son to stop brooding: ‘I don’t require you to fall in love with my boy but please try to help him’.

The ambiguity of this exchange is further emphasised by Mr. Emerson’s reference to the ‘everlasting why’ which he says George is trying to answer and also to his belief that there is ‘a yes and a yes and a yes’ which lies at the side of the everlasting why.  These statements reflect an inner sensibility in Emerson to recognise an openness to love and passion in his son and most importantly a recognition of these qualities when he finds them in Lucy.  Emerson’s riddles are comparable to the cryptic language of the Fool in King Lear, the purpose of which is to provoke deep, soul-searching contemplation and honest interaction between characters.

While the Santa Croce sequence is taking place, Miss Lavish is leading Charlotte on a tour of the ‘real’ Italy.  The camera follows them down little alleys and side streets, soaking up the atmosphere of Florence.  As they pass down one side street, three local Italian men try to catch their attention.  The individual responses of the women are interesting.  Miss Lavish seems to be oblivious to them but the camera focuses on Charlotte’s face, which reflects a sense of repulsion and scorn.  This reaction illustrates Charlotte’s inability to cope with raw passion and desire.  Miss Lavish, on the other hand, seems to have a rather lax attitude towards the rules which govern society.  They both try to be individualistic, self-sufficient and daring and both are opinionated and headstrong.  There is, however, a sense of innocence about them, as though they know the theory about love but have little actual experience of it.  This is illustrated by the over-sentimentalised love story which Miss Lavish writes, using Lucy and George as her protagonists.  Her philosophy that ‘one has always to be open, wide open to physical sensation’, is applied to Lucy when she describes her as a ‘young English girl transfigured by Italy’.

 The irony of this statement is emphasised in the next sequence which catapults Lucy into this very ‘transfiguration’.  The camera, having cut to Lucy, follows her across the piazza, widening into a high angle shot so that the frame encompasses the width and breadth of the square and Lucy is swallowed up into the crowd.  The camera then focuses on close up shots of various sculptures of classical figures holding decapitated heads and figures bearing swords and clubs, engaged in various acts of barbarity.  These shots, accompanied by ominous background music, are indicative of the terrible violence which Lucy is about to witness.  What looks like a fist fight between two young Italian men, suddenly turns to murder when one of them is stabbed.  The stabbing indicates the evil nature of humanity when passion overrides moral judgement.  It is juxtaposed with Lucy’s discovery of real love and thus serves to contrast the struggle between the destructive power of hatred and the transforming power of love.

 After the brawl in the piazza there is a low camera angle and close up shot of the victim’s face, so that the frame encompasses his mouth which is covered in blood and his eyes which reflect the horror of his attack.  The impact of this scene on Lucy is captured in the slow camera movement which lingers on the victim’s face in a moment of tension and drama, indicated by the swell of dramatic music in the background.  It is as if the blood which drains from the young man’s body is also being drained from Lucy, and the high camera angle which captures her fainting spell illustrates the subconscious impact which the event will evoke in her.  When George Emerson rescues Lucy from the frenzied crowd, the camera cuts back and forth between the victim’s predicament and Lucy’s attempt to disengage herself, both mentally and physically, from George.  Her awkwardness at this point reflects the intimacy that has occurred between them, an intimacy which would be frowned upon by society.

Her attempt at aloofness fails because he tells her that something tremendous has happened between them.  Lucy’s notion that after the upheavals experienced by people in their lives, they return to their old life is rejected by George, who tells her that this is not so with him.  His words are graphically illustrated by their close proximity to each other on the bridge and when he throws her pictures, which are covered in the victim’s blood, into the river.  The camera follows the pictures as they are swept away by the swift flowing waters, metaphorically representing the passion which has been ignited between them.  From this moment onwards every time Lucy and George encounter each other, the viewer is aware of the attraction that lies between them.  This is evident in their gestures and interactions with each other and most particularly in the amorous eye contact made between them.  All these relationships are highly charged with dramatic tension because of their forbidden nature.  They illustrate very effectively the possibility of desire creating strong characters or contemptible individuals.

 In the sequence where the company drive out in two carriages to see a view, the theme of love versus hatred is evident.  As they drive, Rev. Eager reprimands Phaethon, the young Italian coachman, for his intimacy with the young girl who accompanies him.  Their display of affection conflicts with Eager’s clinical unemotive personality and his patronising attitude to Lucy.  Ironically, while he points out various buildings and houses which he recognises, the driver and his companion continue to caress each other and it is obvious that Lucy finds their actions much more interesting than Rev. Eager’s conversation.

 Her curiosity is illustrated when the camera focuses on her as she spies on the lovers through Miss Lavish’s binoculars.  In this interesting shot the camera allows the viewer to see Lucy’s point of view.  The frame is confined to the close-up of the lovers’ kiss.  This emphasis on Lucy’s curiosity parallels her desire to experience passion and prepares the viewer for her climactic encounter with George later on in the sequence.

Later George and Lucy encounter each other in a secluded part of the view and finally succumb to their desires and they embrace passionately.  Their abandonment of proper etiquette is reflected in the scenery, which is untamed and surrounded by luscious greenery.  Ironically, it was Phaethon, the young Italian driver, who guided Lucy to George.  The paralleling of the Italian and his lover with George and Lucy emphasises the importance of love in the film.  The comparison between the Italian’s relaxed image in the carriage when Lucy comes upon him and her sensuous image in bed at the beginning of the film, reiterates her latent desire.

When Charlotte finds George and Lucy embracing, the look of repulsion on her face symbolises her suppression of emotion but when compared to her earlier conversation with Miss Lavish about a woman marrying a lover ten years younger than her, this seems contradictory.  The tone of the lovers’ conversation infers the scandalous nature of such behaviour but it also illustrates the emptiness of Charlotte’s existence; she can only talk about such passion while Lucy actually experiences it with George.  However liberating this experience is for Lucy, it becomes a burden which she must hide from her own conscience, her family and the other guests in the pensione.

It is interesting that after this episode, Charlotte continually orders Lucy away from the window in her room, but symbolically Lucy is drawn back to it again.  It is as if having once experienced such passion she is ensnared by it and wants to explore it more fully.

The sequence which takes place in England allows the viewer to contrast the dull conventionalism of English society with the open and unpretentious society of Italy.  This contrast is reinforced by the formality of Cecil Vyse’s proposal to Lucy.  The stylised position of their bodies as he proposed illustrates the emotional distance between them and is emphasised by the camera movement out through the drawing-room window to give the viewer Mrs. Honeychurch’s point of view of the setting.  The dialogue between Lucy and Cecil cannot be heard because the dialogue Mrs. Honeychurch has with her son has precedence.  Their dialogue implies Freddy’s dislike of Cecil’s pomposity and unsuitability for Lucy.  Her acceptance of Cecil’s proposal is her attempt to purge herself of the memory of George Emerson.

Cecil’s unsuitability for Lucy is reflected very well in Mr. Beebe’s face when Cecil tells him about the engagement.  The camera holds on Mr. Beebe and the viewer witnesses the mingling of his shock and sadness.

Subconsciously Cecil is probably aware of his unsuitability for Lucy because it is inferred when he suggests that she is more comfortable with him in a room than in the open countryside.  It is most definitely evident in the way he kisses her.  This shot reflects his inexperience and sexual indifference to her, while Lucy displays an avid desire for a passionate embrace.  Lucy’s disappointment with Cecil is reflected by the close-up camera shot of Lucy’s face, which highlights her bewilderment at expressing so much unrequited passion.  It is also evident in the dissolving of this frame into the sequence in the Italian countryside where George Emerson first kissed her.

In the London sequence when Cecil and his mother talk about Lucy it is in the tone of having acquired a possession.  This attitude is highlighted when Mrs. Vyse watches the reactions of her guests to Lucy’s piano playing.  The claustrophobic room where this sequence takes place also illustrates that the acquisition of objects is more important to the Vyses than self-knowledge or real feelings.

 The shot which focuses on the faces of Cecil and his mother captures their conspiratorial gaze and also forces Mrs. Vyse to look up at Cecil while he is talking.  This inference of Cecil’s superior attitude is reflected in his dialogue about the education of his children in the future.  The sense of confined space in this frame, suggested by the vast array of ornaments in the room, is paralleled to Lucy’s encounter with Cecil on the landing before she retires to bed.  The sense of awkward anticipation in her gestures underlines her inner frustration with Cecil’s lack of passion.  Their incompatibility is carried into the next sequence which contrasts the Vyses’ home with the Honeychurch’s’ sprawling house and gardens and the horseplay of Freddy and Lucy.

 The arrival of the Emersons in Summer Street propels the theme of love into the foreground of this sleepy, contented little place.  The first suggestion of the upheaval which their arrival will bring about is the swimming sequence.  The close camera shots of Freddy, Mr. Beebe and George Emerson frolicking and carousing about the place naked is symbolic of the raw and primitive passion which exists in human beings and which must find expression.  The seclusion of the frame with the three men surrounded by bushes and trees is contrasted with the long-distance shot of Cecil, Mrs. Honeychurch and Lucy.

 When Lucy, Cecil and Mrs. Honeychurch come face to face with George and Freddy, their reactions are typical.  Only Lucy, who makes a tentative effort to shield her eyes with her umbrella, finds the episode humorous, while Cecil attempts to beat an escape route through the undergrowth with his cane, in order to avoid confrontation.

 Constantly in this film Cecil is used as a medium through which the upper classes are ridiculed and this is obvious in his self-delusion and his blindness about what is really going on around him.  He becomes a source of fun and is ridiculed.  This is illustrated in the sequence where Lucy and George embrace in the garden while Cecil reads Miss Lavish’s book about their first encounter in Italy.   Cecil is incapable of seeing things as they really are.  He is content in his delusion but outside influences force him to suffer for his ignorance.  Cecil is very pompous, dismissive and critical of other people.

 Lucy finally breaks off her engagement with Cecil.  This sequence takes place at night and Lucy’s delivery of the bad news, while she tidies the drawing room, begins politely but increases in vehemence.

The final sequence of the film reiterates the symbolic importance of a room with a view.  The close-up camera shot of George and Lucy, framed by the open window, against the backdrop of Florence in the distance, captures their love for each other.  The evils which exist in A Room with a View, therefore,  are found in the repression of society, the snobbery of class distinction and the inability to express openly the passions of the heart.

 LITERARY GENRE

This film is a classic romance, a love story with a happy ending.  Before the end, however, both Lucy and George Emerson must overcome obstacles to their love and in the end, they are happily reunited once again.

The viewer is expected to suspend disbelief concerning the numerous rather extravagant coincidences in the plot – the initial confusion over the room, meeting with George at the street fight, the great coincidence that there was a novelist present to enshrine the illicit kiss in fiction, and the even greater coincidence when that novel is read by Cecil in the presence of Lucy and George, etc. ….. !

PLOT

The plot of the film is straightforward.  The heroine and hero meet in a hotel in Florence and are attracted to one another.  The hero falls in love immediately but the heroine will not allow herself to do so.  They meet again in England and eventually marry despite their social backgrounds.

SETTING

The film is set in Florence and Summer Street in England.  It begins and ends in Florence, and it begins and ends with the view from the hotel window as the main focus.  The rest of the film is set in England.  There is only one brief visit to London when Lucy goes to stay with Cecil’s family.

VISUALS

The Florentine scene with the view as the main focus is a striking part of the film.  When the tourists go on their day trip the attractions of the Italian countryside are emphasised.  Art is an important topic and there are many shots of the architecture of Florence.  The stone carvings on the streets and the inside of a church, Santa Croce, are examined.  Pictures in the Art Gallery in London feature and Cecil compares Lucy to a Leonardo painting.  George and Lucy kiss in a beautiful cornfield and later on in a green countryside.  The colour green is evident everywhere.  The lush landscape of England is seen in the season of swimming and tennis parties.

CAMERA SHOTS/ANGLES

There is nothing unusual about the camera shots or angles: they reinforce and aid the leisurely flow of the story.  There is one flashback sequence when Cecil is clumsily venturing to kiss Lucy on the mouth and she cannot help remembering George’s passionate embrace in Italy.  This is shown briefly on screen accompanied by passionate music.  This is a very effective device as the difference between the two men is revealed and from here on in the film, the audience become alienated from Cecil.

There is clever use of camera shots in the cathedral in Florence.  An obedient crowd of tourists rotate their heads in the required direction when their guide indicates an important feature of its architecture.  The camera switches to the particular feature and back to the crowd in readiness for the next swivel of heads.  This happens a few times and it arouses the viewer’s curiosity.

When the men are bathing in the lake near Summer Street their enjoyment of the afternoon is clearly established in the viewers’ minds before the ladies and Cecil are introduced.  The camera changes from the men to the women a couple of times to heighten the suspense of the approaching discovery.

LIGHTING

There are no major changes in the lighting in the film.  Italy and England in the summer time are awash with light.  England indoors is often in shadow, this sometimes varies depending on the scene.  When Lucy is breaking up with Cecil the room is particularly dark.  Most of the shadowy lighting reflects their relationship.

MUSIC

The music varies with the scenes.  When emotional scenes are being shown, it is often subtle, and particularly romantic when Lucy and George are kissing.  There is a strong beat which heightens the drama when the fight occurs.  Near the conclusion, the music reaches a crescendo when Lucy realises who she really loves.

LANGUAGE

The accents of the actors are clearly distinguished.  Cecil Vyse, in particular, has what he considers to be a superior accent.  His speeches are in a haughty tone and this is more exaggerated when he is criticising or demeaning someone.  His affected language makes him both sound and look ridiculous.  Mr. Emerson speaks with a plain and unadorned accent to indicate a more honest character who speaks his mind.  He stands out in contrast to Cecil, and in particular to the company he meets in Florence and in England.

SYMBOLS

The piano is a key symbol in the film.  Lucy plays it regularly, expressing her strongest emotions through her playing.  It is Mr. Beebe who is struck by the fact that her personality does not match the way she plays.  He makes the point that if Lucy lives as she plays, ‘it will be very exciting for us, and for her’.  He suspects that she will break out someday and, ‘One day music and life will mingle.’

CULTURAL CONTEXT

Society is a central issue in the film.  For the Edwardians, social position was everything.   English hypocrisy and pretentiousness is highlighted here.  Social snobbery is rife.  Charlotte’s attitude towards Mr. Emerson in the pensione is a striking example of this.  The Miss Alans, an elderly couple, also illustrate this.  They both sympathise with Charlotte and Lucy for having to endure Mr. Emerson’s insistence on exchanging rooms.  Cecil is depicted as an insufferable snob, who sneers at everything that does not match his standards.  Ironically he shows how social standings and gentility do not always go together.  He is quite rude about Lucy’s brother Freddy because he is not an academic.  He also makes Lucy’s mother feel that she is not good enough for him.

Social snobbery at its worst is evident when Lucy visits Cecil’s home.  When Cecil and his mother discuss Lucy’s potential, it is as if they are discussing the potential of a new household acquisition. In the end, however, Lucy has the courage to overcome the social barriers that divide her and George and she decides to follow her instincts.  Much of the film concentrates on Lucy’s emancipation from the restrictions imposed upon her by the society that surrounds her.

The culture of England and Italy are also contrasted in the film.  The English visitors are restrained by their code of behaviour.  The Italians, who are only briefly introduced, are uninhibited, and are puzzled and slightly amused by the prudish behaviour of the English.  Charlotte Bartlett typifies this particularly English approach.  The rector, Mr. Eager, is also easily horrified at what he considers to be a blatant show of sexuality when he sees the young Italian driver embracing his girlfriend.

Therefore the viewer is presented with two very different cultures in this film: upper-class England and Florence.  England is emotionally restricted, bourgeois and staid.  Certain codes of behaviour are rigidly adhered to and women have to travel with a chaperone.  The stiffness and formality of this lifestyle is represented in the clothes of the time, manners, language and physical movement.  Florence, on the other hand, is rich, relaxed and flamboyant.  The social atmosphere is open and bright with streets full of life and endlessly fascinating.  The viewer sees the beautiful, airy streets and squares, stunning monuments and impressive architecture.

The colour and variety of the Italians engage the viewer, and the contrast between the social mores of the English visitors is marked.  The Italians chat easily to foreigners and just as easily get caught up in violent street fights.

And so, in the end, realisation dawns on Lucy that she does love George after all and the film ends with the two lovers on their honeymoon back in the Pensione Bertolini in Florence.  They kiss passionately at the window of A Room with a View – and like all good love stories, they both live happily ever after!

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