It’s an iconic moment in the canon of romantic cinema, perhaps the iconic moment: George Emerson striding through an Italian poppy field to plant one on Lucy Honeychurch to the swelling sounds of Puccini. And somehow, until recently, I had just... never gotten around to watching A Room With a View.
Yes, I entirely skipped the 1985 Merchant Ivory production featuring a baby-faced Helena Bonham Carter, a very handsome Julian Sands, and several other eminent actors in very funny supporting roles (yes, we’ll get to Daniel Day Lewis) that is the industry standard of excellence for costume drama. This, despite having owned the DVD for something like 12 years at this point.
I know, I know! It came as a shock to my fellow costume drama addict Stassa Edwards, too. I was delighted to discover that besides being every bit as swoonily romantic as advertised, the movie is also two hours of perfectly quotable lines made for inside jokes—for the rest of my life when I’m disappointed, I’m going to pout and announce, “I thought we were going to see the Arno”—and imagery so languorously lovely, it’s borderline obscene.
Stassa Edwards: Let’s talk about Room With a View, what I consider to be a nearly perfect costume drama.
Kelly Faircloth: I truly cannot believe that until today, I hadn’t seen this movie all the way through, when it is—as you say—very nearly perfect. But I am also glad that I waited this long, because at 22 or whatever, I would not have appreciated how side-splittingly hilarious it is.
Stassa: I was honestly shocked that you, a fellow costume drama aficionado, had not yet seen this movie. It’s true! It’s hysterical, and Simon Callow and Daniel Day Lewis are both very funny, and I love Mr. Emerson.
Kelly: My personal favorite may have been Judi Dench’s all-too-brief turn as a scandalous lady novelist. So what in your opinion makes this movie so compelling?
Stassa: Other than wide lens shots of a poppy field while Kiri Te Kanawa sings Puccini?
Kelly: Other than that, which would have been enough!
Stassa: I like that it’s a comedy at heart. I think costume drama often gets caught in its own self-involvement and is too interested in melodrama. Everyone was playing to subtle comedy, really embracing these stereotypes of the English. It’s a good sendup, but not cruel, which is definitely a hard line to walk. But everything works here. And, like every Merchant-Ivory movie, it’s just really beautiful. Down to a very young Helena Bonham Carter’s perfectly romantic and disheveled hair.
Kelly: I like that she rotates through hairstyles, like she’s experimenting with her look, because she is, in this movie, SO YOUNG. Just subtle differences but enough to make me imagine her standing in front of a mirror playing with it.
That’s what I really enjoyed about it, too—that light comedic touch that is so impossible to pull off. I had always heard about the poppy field scene and expected something more like a politer Poldark. But there’s this very gently farcical tone—at one point, George Emerson kisses Lucy almost literally behind his rival love interest Cecil’s back, as Cecil is being snotty about the scandalous kiss scene in Judi Dench’s novel that he thinks is wildly unrealistic and stupid. And I thought I was going to fall to the floor, it was so funny. I don’t really know that much about E.M. Forster but on the basis of this movie. I assume he’d be the best person in the world to sit next to at a dinner party.
Stassa: And let’s pause to point out that Cecil—nerdy, undesirable Cecil—is Daniel Day Lewis.
Kelly: This is his finest acting!!!! Because even as sweaty nativist Bill the Butcher, he had a certain amount of sexual charisma. Here, he’s playing a human Punch caricature!
Stassa: It’s literally the only time in my life that I wasn’t swooning over Daniel Day Lewis. I looked up some interviews with him from right after Room with a View came out and let’s just say, he worked really hard to turn himself into Cecil Vyse (a last name if there ever was one).
Kelly: And it’s amazing how the movie stops just short of being as cruel to Cecil as it could have been.
Stassa: It’s true, he’s ridiculous but empathetic.
Kelly: The movie mostly feels sorry for him, in the end.
Stassa: You can’t blame Lucy for really being into George’s creed.
Kelly: George, who hardly talks except when he shouts “BEAUTY! JOY!” from Italian trees.
Stassa: I mean, George saying his creed while James Ivory cites Manet’s Luncheon is the Grass is a MOMENT:
Kelly: And then George falls out of the tree.
Stassa: And yet remains an ideal romantic object.
Kelly: The whole movie is just very sweet without being saccharine. I really enjoyed the moment toward the end where he kisses his dad’s head.
Stassa: I think Mr. Emerson is an underrated character, generally.
Kelly: George is a romantic hero because he just feels his feelings but in a nice way.
Stassa: And is sweetly awkward, like when he throws Lucy’s postcards away.
Kelly: He really is often just as awkward as Cecil, the difference being that Cecil is a snob who wants a trophy and George isn’t. (And also is very blondely handsome.)
Stassa: Right, which is the real romance of the movie—at least to a preteen girl (me, when I first saw it)—that Lucy gets to be herself and play Beethoven with too much feeling.
Kelly: Can we just, very briefly, discuss the very long naked bathing scene?
Stassa: Yes! The homoeroticism that courses through that film—
Kelly: Let me just say that I ship the characters of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.
Stassa: Which is a reference to a series of bather paintings—a hallmark of Ivory who, of course, wrote Call Me by Your Name.
Kelly: I was about to say, is this more French art? Feels like French art! (I am v. sophisticated.)
Stassa: It’s AMERICAN.
Kelly: WHAT! (Truly I am a philistine, Cecil would be appalled)
Stassa: Though Cezanne admittedly did some male bathers, as did the Bloomsbury painters, but behold:
Kelly: I think the homoeroticism is part of what makes this movie stand out from the costume drama canon, in a good way. I am, of course, a paid-up member of the costume drama fandom, but I think there’s often conservative/nostalgic impulses at work in a lot of adaptations. This one ends with a marriage, butttttttttt it just feels like the windows are open and the air is moving through the room a little better than is sometimes the case.
Stassa: Definitely. I think the humor is part of that—the characters in the movie who would be objects of nostalgia are incredibly silly. Or in Mr. Beebe’s case, a subversion of the ideal.
I like, too, that Mr. Emerson’s wardrobe has that Thoreau quote about “enterprises that require new clothes” or something like that.
Kelly: Another fun thing is that Cecil, while an antagonist, isn’t staid and boring and uncultured—he’s cultured in the wrong way.
Stassa: Right, culture is currency—both class and intellectual currency. But the Emersons appreciate culture in the right way, with no pretension and no sense of ownership.
Kelly: The story is more sympathetic to the funny old ladies in Italy, ultimately, than Cecil, which is part of why it feels so good-natured. The movie sees what’s funny about all the people in the Italian pension, but not in a way that seeks to build cultural capital just by dumping on curious tourists. I might even go so far as to say that the movie actually loves curiosity, which is why I love the movie.
Stassa: I like that it sends up tourists, but like the knowing tourist—Judi Dench’s character.
Kelly: With her idea of applying a test for people leaving England at Dover, and REFUSING to let anyone use Baedeker. What else?
Stassa: I think we have to talk about THE SCENE.
The poppy field scene, to me, is iconic costume drama. It checks every single one of the genre’s boxes in less than three minutes.
Kelly: Not enough has been said about grass in costume dramas. Costume dramas love grass even more than they love corsets.
Stassa: And opera, especially Italian opera. But the field, the romance, the costuming, the fretting chaperone all came together here with perfection.
Kelly: You know why I think it’s perfect, is because the whole movie is so light and ironic, and this scene just goes for it and sweeps you right off your feet, because it stands out so sharply. My favorite scene in a Georgette Heyer novel is like this. She doesn’t really get mushy, and in Frederica (the one with the hot-air balloon), there’s this scene where two people are on a staircase and he puts his hand on her arm. And because she’s so restrained in the mushiness generally, it just really shines.
Stassa: Right. Even in this movie, it’s a scene that should end a movie, but it doesn’t. Just plopped there in the middle, to think about.
Kelly: I always assumed it was the final scene! I was SHOCKED that it happened so early. And then there’s that whole second scene that references it comedically, in the form of the slightly trashy novel.
Stassa: VERY trashy novel.
Kelly: Okay, yes, very trashy. (I mean, the cover is bright red.)
Stassa: It’s so self-conscious of the scene itself as this construct.
Kelly: Here we are off-roading in terms of my vocabulary for talking about aesthetics (yes, I should have taken more theory in college, I know), but I think that sometimes people talk about artificial things as though their artificiality invalidates them. But I think the perfect clockwork feeling of it is what makes it so lovely. “Yes, here we go, we are doing this, it is a perfect scene, and we know it, and you know it, now let’s enjoy the Puccini.” (Nobody is surprised to learn that I am a ghost from Vauxhall Gardens, marveling at the entertainments.)
Stassa: I think that’s what’s ultimately so satisfying about most Merchant Ivory movies.
Kelly: They even have the interstitials with the chapter titles and the Italian interior painting that there is definitely a term for, and I definitely do not know it.
Stassa: Hahaha, me neither! But yes, I love that they didn’t bother with transitions. Actually much closer to life, in my opinion. Let’s also take a moment to appreciate the visuals in this movie.
Kelly: It’s all just like swimming in honey and lavender.
Stassa: Every room is rich and overflowing, every costume is perfect, every garden is lush. Even Florence’s patina is perfectly cinematic. I’ve never seen murder look so romantic!
Kelly: Ah, bella Italia!