Monday, November 05, 2007

ITV's A Room With A View lacks sparkle

It was a piece of inspired programming from FilmFour surely, to broadcast the 1985 Merchant Ivory version of EM Forster's A Room With A View, just hours before ITV unveiled its own, new adaptation of the much-loved tale, featuring the sensual awakening of young Edwardian Lucy Honeychurch amidst the lush glories of Italy. However, FilmFour's scheduling decision was a poor one for ITV, serving only to highlight the stark difference between the two films. The Merchant Ivory version, which virtually epitomises 1980s Heritage Cinema as a nostalgic, sunkissed fest of chocolate-box prettiness, is rendered an exquisite jewel beside this latest ITV offering, which sadly comes across as bland and depressing, despite some strenuous efforts to inject fresh relevancy and context.

First and foremost, this latest adaptation has been shot in a darker palette compared to the brilliant hues of its Merchant Ivory predecessor. This clearly ensures a more sombre, even melancholy tone, which pervades this production, further encapsulated by an invented framing device, offering us a flash-forwards to 1922 when Lucy Honeychurch returns, solo, to the pensione where she first met her future husband George Emerson. This device moves full-circle, bar a few intrusions into the main narrative, closing the film with Lucy revisiting the cornfield where she and George first kissed, accompanied by - of all people - the Italian coach-driver who first steered the young Lucy towards her lover.

Oddly, Lucy and driver picnic together, hand in hand, reminiscing, although there is an unexpected, even unwelcome romantic frisson between the two, rendered all the more peculiar by the scenes preceding this moment, fading Lucy and George's frenetic honeymoon lovemaking into a ghastly still of George, lifeless on the battlefields of WWI.

In this sense, screenwriter Andrew Davies has certainly wrought a clearcut change between the frothy but warm Merchant Ivory picture and this new version. It has been hailed in the press previews as closer to Forster's intent, but is in itself a deviation from the source. Forster made it clear in an afterword to his novel, that George was a conscientious objector in the war - itself a clear political message if one was genuinely being sought here by the ITV producers. As it stands, George's death seems strangely tacked-on and unnecessarily gloomy, even though, it is obvious that Davies and Nicholas Renton (the tele-film's director) are making a clear statement about the transient nature of the Edwardian fin-de-siecle period - the bucolic calm before the ghastly storm which was soon to embroil Europe, destroying life after life, cruelly ending a multiplicity of love affairs.

This ITV production also chose to make Reverend Mr Beebe's homosexuality a little more explicit by way of a snippet of a scene where Lucy spies Mr Beebe talking to a couple of Italian guys in a shady Florence alleyway - inferring that he is trying to pick them up. Although this scene is subtly rendered and certainly adds to Mr Beebe's characterisation, the moment is slightly ruined by Lucy's clear, though unspoken recognition of the significance of Mr Beebe's actions, as she then appears a lot more worldly wise than would have been the case.

In one other crucial way, the ITV production also differs from the Merchant Ivory film, in that the Emersons - George especially - are shown to be thoroughly lower in class and standing than the Honeychurchs and their ilk. This is an important distinction to make, because Lucy is concerned by her attraction to George, in large part because, in comparison to herself and her class, he is 'common' and works as a clerk for the railways. In the Merchant Ivory production, Julian Sands, while determinedly wooden in his acting abilities, certainly glowed with physical prowess and gilded good looks - appearing every inch the patrician, a far cry from Rafe Spall's cockney characterisation in the ITV production.

But yet again, despite ITV's best attempts to offer us some kind of veracity, a real insight into Lucy's fear of George, Spall's George is uninspiring and altogether charmless. This is a very real shame. In BBC 4's Wide Sargasso Sea, Rafe Spall made for a hugely charismatic young Rochester, but his appeal falters badly here. And as A Room With A View is, foremost, a love story, this failing is particularly affecting.

It doesn't seem fair to draw too many comparisons with the 1985 film in terms of actor choice per role - after all, each new adaptation should be taken as a fresh reading, a novel interpretation of the source material. But the Merchant Ivory film is so powerful a picture, comparisons are inevitable. On just about every level, the ITV tele-film falls short.

Sophie Thompson, for example, is a fine actress, but here, her take on Charlotte Bartlett, when compared to the inimitable Maggie Smith in 1985, is woeful. She stammers and giggles, a cross between her own version of Miss Bates in the 1996 Miramax adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma, and her comedic (and hugely successful) Mary Musgrove in the BBC's 1995 Persuasion (also Austen). As a consequence, her Charlotte Bartlett feels ill-defined and ineffectual.

Timothy Spall is another marvelous actor, but his Mr Emerson feels workmanlike and laboured when compared to Denholm Elliott. Judy Dench in 1985 also made for a better Miss Lavish, the breathlessly excited romantic novelist, compared to Sinead Cusack in 2007. And what was Elizabeth McGovern doing? She might as well have faxed in her performance in the role of Mrs Honeychurch.

For me, the greatest absence was Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse - one of my favourite comic acting performances of all time. Sure, he was a parodic figure of fun, and Laurence Fox's latest version offers, arguably, more of a genuine romantic choice for Lucy. But, boy, was Day-Lewis missed! I could hardly bear to watch Fox. Rather than an effete, book-loving smarm, Fox came across as someone desperate to play a 'lad', and bore the air of someone who was injured, and therefore unable to play tennis with Freddie, rather than someone who would rather immerse himself in a book.

As for Lucy herself. Elaine Cassidy was absolutely fine in the role. She lacked the arch sweetness of Helena Bonham-Carter, but she acted rather than pouted, which could only be a good thing. Except ... I have actually grown a lot fonder of Bonham-Carter's stilted performance over the years - and now respect her acting talents too - but Cassidy certainly brought more innate drama to Miss Honeychurch. And yet I still missed the 1985 Lucy - buttoned-up and wide-eyed with surprise at the unexpected emotions roiling through her. In the ITV production, Cassidy was a little too shrewish, too sharp and far too knowing - especially sexually, as made evident by the blatant ogling between Lucy and George.

Nicholas Renton tried to demonstrate Lucy's rejection of overt sensuality in alternative ways. There is a prolonged sequence where she gawps at the naked forms of the classical statues thronging Florence's piazzas. The scene, which seems to be a direct smash and grab from Joe Wright's 2005 Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennet finally confronts her erotic nature and her attraction to Darcy while gazing at naked statues, is intended to signify Lucy's own sensual awakening, which she then markedly rejects when she refuses to buy a postcard depicting the familiar naked form of Michelangelo's 'David'.

Overall, direction was perfectly serviceable, and there were a couple of noteworthy performances, in addition to Cassidy herself. Timothy West's pompous Reverend Eager was spot-on and Mark Williams was fine as Reverend Mr Beebe - a less hearty and rather more serious portrayal compared to Simon Callow's brash buffoonery in 1985, although there was a gently wrought sensitivity hovering just beneath the surface of Callow's Beebe which was enormously endearing.

Italy made for a lovely location of course, although this was a shadowy Florence and Santa Croce was remarkably devoid of crowds. Summer Street was a pleasantly pastoral English locale, and we lost London altogether, meaning we lost the delightful irony of Cecil smugly enticing the Emersons to Summer Street himself, after encountering them in the Italian art section of the National Gallery. We gained Rome, however, when Lucy and Charlotte visit the Vyses.

The 1985 film placed greater emphasis, it seemed, on the aesthetic qualities of Forster's work - both in a filmic, visual sense and also through its interpretation of the novel, stressing the difference between those characters that languished indoors - by extension more inward-looking, bookish and repressed - and those who ventured more outdoors, indicating a more forward, progressive nature, thrusting towards modernity rather than the past and tradition. The Emersons, Freddy and Lucy are shown to revel in the outdoors, and Lucy is peeved that propriety has cooped her inside more than she would like.

The 2007 version seemed to place less emphasis on this particular binary, focusing, laudably it should be said, on the class differences between the Emersons and the remaining cast (except the Italian coach-driver, although his inflated role only serves to enhance the theme of inter-class reconciliation). There is one particular scene where Miss Lavish and Charlotte Bartlett hoot with disdainful laughter at George Emerson's professional association with the railways. Their snobbery is unseemly, and Lucy herself is disgusted.

It is a shame that with so much wanting to be 'said' in this production, the sum of its parts is a letdown; a bland, slightly miserable potage. There is a melancholy mood throughout, which does little to engage the viewer, most especially as this sobriety isn't even juxtaposed with sunny, sensual warmth, which would have served to enhance the narrative's poignancy. The musical scoring from Gabriel Yared has been much-praised in reviews, but the plaintive piano pieces only added to the uneasy sense of melancholia in a way that depressed rather than enlightened.

It is unnerving that the sparkling technicolour Merchant Ivory production, glorying in its sentimentality and featuring the thrilling, resonating strains of Puccini's 'Chi Bel Sogno' from La Rondine as the lovers first kiss, is ultimately more poignant for me than ITV's darker, one-note production, which strives far too hard to emphasise that the much-fabled halycon pre-war days of Edwardian England were soon to draw to a horrific and shocking close with WWI. The glowing lustre of the Merchant Ivory production expressed this in less stark terms and without the unnecessary addition of George's staring corpse, abandoned in no-man's land, because the beauty that film captures is unreal, removed and wistful. Forever lost, because we know the 20th century was a brutal place, a cruel time, and that the sharp pangs of nostalgia we experience are ultimately for something that was never really there.


La Nouvelle Heloise said...

It's always a pleasure to read your well written, well thought out reviews! I too will be sticking to the 1985 sunnier production over this one. To me this felt like "A room with a view for Dummies": so little for the imagination and drained of all poetic dialogue!
Best, LNH

Gallivant said...

Thanks for your kind comment.

Yes, this adaptation definitely lacked the lyricism of the 1985 version. And I found the 'explanation' of the coach driver's actions in ushering Lucy towards the 'buon uomo' (sp?) a bit heavy-handed and patronising too.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm not the only person who didn't really like the ITV version! Having read the book many times and being a big fan of the film I felt cheated by the poor dialogue that seemed to bypass Forster's far superior words. And the ending was extremely disappointing and annoying. The film version was far sexier!

Anonymous said...

Great review, I feared I was alone in my views of this depressing and dumbed down version of such a beautiful and optimistic novel, which the Merchant-Ivory adaptation captured so perfectly. I had high hopes of the ITV production because Andrew Davies' adaptation of Pride and Prejudice had stayed so faithful to the spirit and language of the book, but I hated the patronising way that the subtleties of A Room with a View have been handled in this version. What a let down!

Anonymous said...

Your review is absolutely spot-on. I thought they added to the 1985 film in a few ways, particularly Mark Williams' take on Mr Beebe and I personally thought Timothy Spall was very good. So many misjudgements though - Cecil Vyse was horribly wrong and I'm sorry to say that Rafe Spall was a real turn-off, grinning inanely up a tree. The ending was utterly pointless, as you have said and I was shocked to find the music was written by Gabriel Yared, an awesomely talented composer, who sounds like he knocked it off in an afternoon in between film jobs.

Anonymous said...


Your reviews are great, can i suggest a couple of period dramas for you to watch/review that as far as i can see you haven't yet? I'm a complete period drama addict!

Have you seen The Forsyte Saga adaptation? It was on BBC/ITV (can't remember!) a while ago, I personally thought it was brilliant.
Also, North & South with the delectable Richard Armitage, I'd love to read your review of that.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I've been listening to BBC 4's "Book at Bedtime", which has been a beautiful reading of ARWAV, done by Juliet Stevenson. That lead me to look for a scene or two of the Merchant and Ivory on YouTube, which ended up in me watching the entire ITV version in one go.

I, too, am so glad that I am not alone in my distaste for this version. The dark, distracting bookending device, the ridiculousness of the coachdriver (sure, he'd remember her. And be alive), and, continuing with Italy, the up close camera ogling of the statues, underscored with screaming music, a rip-off itself. Out of the performances, Sophie Thompson's re-do of her other, better work irked me, and Rafe Spall... sometimes I thought he was charming, sometimes borderline disabled. Elaine Cassidy was indeed too sharp and harsh for the role, I never saw a scene where I could get where someone would fall in love with her. Plot devices -- George in a towel! How Lucy had no problem or guilt in dropping Cecil. What was left out, what was created... and Forster's dialogue wasn't good enough??


One of the sexiest scenes ever -- Julian Sands kissing Helena Bonham-Carter to distraction, in the window in Florence. Too bad Merchant and Ivory didn't show Sand's corpse to end the movie instead!

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The Rush Blog said...

In the Merchant Ivory production, Julian Sands, while determinedly wooden in his acting abilities, certainly glowed with physical prowess and gilded good looks - appearing every inch the patrician, a far cry from Rafe Spall's cockney characterisation in the ITV production.

I got the impression that the Emersons in the 1985 movie were distinctly middle-class. I felt the same about the Honeychurches . . . only with a little more money.

Anonymous said...

I found the ITV film utterly remarkable and the scene near the end with Elaine Cassidy and Timothy Spall incredibly tense and deep and beautiful. A scene dramatic and artistic to a wonderful degree we seldom find in any film. I loved Sophie Thompson's breathless, confused, and often very entertaining Charlotte. Cassidy LIVES a character as very few artists can, and we live this deep impersonation with her every step of the way. A richly engaging, sympathetic Lucy, with none of the frowning, often ill-tempered demeanor of the actress in the 1986 film.

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