Director: James Ivory
Writer: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Cinematographer: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Composer: Richard Robbins
Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis, Simon Callow, Rupert Graves, Judi Dench.
Like anyone else, I have some big gaps in my film viewing (and book reading, for that matter). Every once in a while I try to make up for these lacks by watching a film that I feel I should have seen by now. Every once in a while this film comes up in conversation and when I was looking for something not too heavy a few nights ago I decided to watch this 1985 film, which was also a contender for the Academy Award for best picture (Platoon won, FYI).
It’s interesting in retrospect to see the star power assembled for this film, as several of the cast members are now not just famous and Oscar winners, but are regarded as some of the very best British actors alive. And yet that was not always the case… This was Helena Bonham Carter’s first feature film, Judi Dench was not exactly a household name when she took a small supporting role in this film, Daniel Day-Lewis was still a few years away from his star making role in My Left Foot, Rupert Graves was a virtual unknown. Really Maggie Smith was the only recognizable star in this film, as she had already built an impressive career and had previously won two Oscars – and yet her role in this film is definitely a supporting one. Kudos to James Ivory and his producing partner (and partner in real life) Ismail Merchant for cherry picking an impressive cast and giving a platform to some of our greatest actors alive.
The story, based on the novel of the same name by E.M. Forster, is your routine British love story set in the Edwardian period. A young British ingenue is touring Italy, and while in Florence she meets a young man. Longing looks are exchanged, and after one passionate kiss, the girl and her chaperone return home. Once back the girl quickly becomes engaged to an eligible yet insufferable bachelor. The man from Italy reappears, important decisions must be made. There are definitely no surprising storylines or scenes to be had. An audience familiar with Forster, Jane Austen, and the like will not be holding their breath for the inevitable outcome of the story.
But that is not a problem, and the reason why a predictable plot doesn’t affect the joy of watching this film is because there is a lot to appreciate besides the script. Firstly, the film is absolutely beautiful! The cinematography is gorgeous as we go from the medieval city of Florence to the Tuscan countryside and eventually end up in Surrey. Basilicas, inns, fields, ponds, villages – it’s a veritable smorgasbord of beauty and quaint gorgeousness. I found myself in awe of the locations and the gentle work of the camera as it spanned the various locales, in spite of being very familiar with some of them (like Piazza della Signoria in Florence, a place I have spent a considerable time in). There is one quite bizarre and overwhelmingly homoerotic scene which was almost hilariously excessive with its male-on-male gaze… I’m still not really sure what to make of it, but even that scene was shot beautifully.
The other reason the film works so well is because of the acting, especially Helena Bonham Carter. Too often I get distracted by the over the top, whimsical, and downright nutty characters the actress has tended to play over the years. In this film she is realistic, but it’s immediately obvious why she became the star she is now. Too often these young British ingenue roles are played dull and vapid by lesser actresses, all the joy, pep, and emotion sucked out, and wide-eyed bewilderment is the only effect provided. Carter does not go this route, instead instilling in her Lucy Honeychurch with energy, will, agency, and strength – I was utterly mesmerized. Dench and Smith do a good job with their relatively simple and not very layered roles, as does Day-Lewis as the odious Cecil Vyse. Ultimately, though, this film belongs to Carter, and everyone else just occupies space around her, even her paramours.
I’m so glad I finally came around and watched this film, and I will make it a point to catch up with other Merchant Ivory productions I have missed, because there are many of them.