It will probably take another Merchant Ivory production to best an earlier version. The 1985 movie A Room With A View has ingrained in my memory certain images of sight and sound that are difficult to replace, like Lucy opening the window and the camera slowly zooms in the beautiful view of Florence, highlighting the Il Duomo. Or the ending shot of the silhouettes of Lucy and George sitting by the same window… To me, A Room With A View is Kiri Te Kanawa singing Puccini’s aria “O mio babbino caro” (O My Beloved Father), achingly depicting the agony of unrequited love. Further, it is also the humor that underlies the whole story as Forster has intended, as evidenced by the chapter (or scene) titles.
Nevertheless, I came to watch this newest BBC production with an open mind. I was eager to see how a 21st Century, Andrew Davis rendition would present this E. M. Forster love story. Every new adaptation of an old classic should offer us a new vision. With such endeavors Andrew Davis has proven to be relatively successful in the past with his Austen and Dickens adaptations. Here, I anticipate another window opening out to a fresh and different view.
For this adaptation, Davis writes the screenplay as Lucy’s flashback. And, letting his imagination roam, he has Lucy coming back to the same Florentine room in The Bertolini, by herself, as a young widow. So with this in mind, the overall sepia tone throughout fits well with the context, a memory re-lived, through the eyes of a lonely young woman who has lost her husband in the war. The colorless overtone might well depict the sombre mood of a very different Lucy.
But there’s the rub. With this new “twist”, Davis has put himself in a difficult position in that, the present might be sombre and sad, but the past is most vibrant and radiant. He’s got in his hands the difficult task of reconciling the two. What mood should he establish? The sombre loss of the present or the fantastic journey of self-discovery and the ecstasy of a young heart heeding true love of the past? umm…alright, let’s just go on with the show…
I have appreciated the fine cinematography and camerawork. The attraction of the Florentine art and architecture as well as Rome’s grandeur are caught with a sense of depth, not just picturesque shots, ironically, thanks to the lack of color. They are frames from Lucy’s point of view, a well-protected, English young woman’s first encounter with greatness and history outside of her familiar, parochial life.
As for the actors, I have mixed feelings. In the 1985 movie, Helena Bonham-Carter’s fresh persona of Lucy Honeychurch is sensitively matched by Julian Sand’s poised portrayal of George Emerson, an ideal image of young love. Somehow, I don’t feel the chemistry here between Elaine Cassidy (When Did You Last See Your Father, 2007) and Rafe Spall. The film is supported by some excellent acting though by veterans like Sophie Thompson (Emma, 1996) as Charlotte Bartlett, Mark Williams (Sense and Sensibility 2008 TV) as Mr. Beebe, Sinead Cusack as Miss Lavish, and Timothy Spall (Enchanted, 2007) as the elder Emerson. Tim and Rafe Spall dispaly an authentic father son relationship on screen, naturally.
A weak link I feel is Laurence Fox as Cecil Vyse. No, I’m not trying to compare him with Daniel Day Lewis’s performance, which is inimitable. But I truly feel it’s a miscast here. Fox as a chap who is no good for anything but books, one who is so physically inapt to avoid a game of tennis? Not very convincing. What we have in this TV version is more like an eerie and chain-smoking Wickham or Willoughby. Speaking of which, the smoke screen connecting to his almost every appearance may well be intentional, visually depicting how marred and distorted Cecil is in his view of himself and of others, particularly, Lucy.
Indeed, as the title well conveys, it is the metaphor of seeing that is the key notion throughout the TV adaptation. In order to impress into our mind, the director has us see lots of scenes by the window. But of course, it’s not so much of looking out but looking in that is crucial here. The whole story is built on Lucy’s seeing clearly what is in her heart, and that the one who has drawn her out of her own self-deception is the one who can offer her ultimate bliss, and that is George Emerson. It is not just about Cecil turning down a tennis match, but it is the last straw, the pivotal turning point where Lucy realizes how egotistic Cecil is. Lucy to him is but an object of art and music, but not as a woman, definitely not as a lover. Forster describes it most strikingly, “The scales fell from Lucy’s eyes.” A Biblical allusion no less than an epiphany.
In this case of course, by following her heart, Lucy is making the moral choice of defying the long tradition of the English class system, smashing the inequalities underneath the civility, and unmasking the snobbishness she has been raised to aspire to. In her new voice, as Cecil has noticed, Lucy has announced a new-found insight. As an admirer of Jane Austen along with his fellow Bloomsbury writer Virginia Woolf, Forster might have written lines that Elizabeth Bennet could have uttered, lines like:
I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you?
If a girl breaks off her engagement, every one says: ‘Oh, she had someone else in her mind;’ … It’s disgusting, brutal! As if a girl can’t break it off for the sake of freedom.
Unfortunately, these lines find no place in the film.
Forster is not afraid to let us see a very muddled Lucy, being confronted by her own feelings and passions that are contrary to her up-bringing, loving someone from a lower social status. The open view of Italy has offered her a wider spectrum to what she is accustomed to seeing. Here lies the muddled complexity of characterization…For often in life, we are walking confusion, unsure of our feelings, insecure about our actions, isn’t such muddledness the very commonality of our being human?
But thanks to her humility, Lucy comes to realize what is in her heart, and who she wants to be. In her recanting of her engagement to Cecil, she admits to be less educated, not as well-versed in the arts and music as Cecil. Maybe because of that, she is more flexible to explore and to associate with those allegedly seen as socially lower than herself. Here lies the paradox, It takes the uneducated eye to find understanding. Cecil is an intellectual, expert in things but not people, his highly educated mind has done nothing for him but left him in a room with no view.
Zadie Smith in her brilliant 2003 Orange Word Lecture entitled “Love, Actually”, discussed the writing of E. M. Forster and Jane Austen. Regarding Lucy’s gaining insight, Smith observed incisively:
It is not by knowing more that Lucy comes to understand, but by knowing considerably less.
As for Davis’ new “twist” at the end … I think that has altered the whole story from a light-hearted piece of social satire and endearing love story to a sombre drama with an awkward ending. And for the last scene, Lucy going on a picnic with the cab-driver, and their final gesture… I think Davis has gone too far with his gratuitous imagination. If that is the new vision he is offering us, I’d rather stick with the old view.
~ ~ Ripples
Photo Source of window with a view: StudentsVille