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In his autobiography, film producer Ismail Merchant writes that A Room with a View (1985) was "the film that catapulted us from the art house to the multiplex." The "us" he refers to are himself and his partners, director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who by then had been making films together for more than 20 years. The Indian-born Merchant met American documentarian Ivory in 1961, and the two men formed a partnership, Merchant Ivory Productions, to make English-language theatrical features in India for the international market. For their first feature film, they approached German-born, India-based writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for the rights to one of her novels, and she not only agreed, she wrote the screenplay. The Householder was released in 1963.
Among certain film snobs, "Merchant Ivory" eventually became shorthand for a stodgy, highbrow costume drama, but A Room with a View, the first worldwide Merchant Ivory hit, is a vibrant comedy that is the opposite of stiff and dull. It teems with life, with passions both hidden and overt, with youthful energy and witty observations on the manners and customs of a bygone era. Based on E.M. Forster's 1908 novel, the film begins in Florence, where young upper middle-class Lucy Honeychurch is touring with her irritating chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett. Among the other English tourists staying at their pensione are freethinking socialist Mr. Emerson and his son George, who are a rung or two down the social ladder from Lucy. When George's growing interest in Lucy leads to a stolen kiss, she flees in confusion. Back in England, their paths cross again, and Lucy must face her feelings for George.
The cast for A Room with a View was a combination of polished veteran actors such as Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Judi Dench, and Simon Callow, and rising newcomers. It was only the second film for Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Lucy. She had the title role in another historical drama, Lady Jane (1986), which was released almost simultaneously with A Room with a View. She would star in another Merchant-Ivory adaptation of a Forster novel, Howard's End (1992), as well as other period dramas, including The Wings of the Dove (1997), for which she won an Oscar® nomination. Bonham Carter has joked about being a "corset sex symbol," and has gone on to a career filled with varied and quirky roles.
Julian Sands, who plays George, has also had an offbeat career, from period dramas to horror films, in Europe and the U.S. But it was Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Lucy's priggish fianc Cecil Vyse, who would become the biggest international star. Day-Lewis had been playing small parts in films and television for five years, and his breakthrough film, My Beautiful Launderette (1985), in which he played a gay punk, was released around the same time as A Room with a View. He later won two Academy Awards, and has amassed an impressive body of work.
A Room with a View cost $2.8 million to make and grossed over $60 million worldwide, breaking box office records. It played in one London theater for an entire year. The film was a hit with the critics as well. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it "an exceptionally faithful, ebullient screen equivalent to a literary work that lesser talents would embalm....Mr. Ivory and Miss Jhabvala have somehow found a voice for the film not unlike that of Forster, who tells the story...with as much concern as astonished amusement." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "This is an intellectual film, but intellectual about emotions: It encourages us to think about how we feel, instead of simply acting on our feelings....Usually, thought and passion are on opposite sides in the movies; this time, it's entertaining to find them on the same side." A Room with a View received eight Academy Award nominations and won three, for adapted screenplay, art direction, and costumes.
A Room with a View was the first of three adaptations of E.M. Forster novels made by the Merchant Ivory team, followed by Maurice (1987) and Howards End. The latter earned a best actress Academy Award for Emma Thompson. The team continued to make films that were often both critical and popular successes until Merchant's death in 2005. Ivory's first film since then, The City of Your Final Destination, was finished in 2007, but was not released until spring, 2010.
Director: James Ivory
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by E.M. Forster
Cinematography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Editor: Humphrey Dixon
Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, John Bright
Art Direction: Gianni Quaranta, Brian Ackland-Snow, Brian Savegar, Elio Altramura
Music: Richard Robbins
Cast: Maggie Smith (Charlotte Bartlett), Helena Bonham Carter (Lucy Honeychurch), Denholm Elliott (Mr. Emerson), Julian Sands (George Emerson), Daniel Day-Lewis (Cecil Vyse), Simon Callow (Rev. Beebe), Judi Dench (Miss Lavish), Rosemary Leach (Mrs. Honeychurch), Rupert Graves (Freddy Honeychurch).
by Margarita Landazuri