Life is busy, but it could not be so busy to keep me from these last two bonus weeks that Nathaniel has blessed us with to wrap up the 2015 edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot. Can it, however, keep me strapped down to writing just a brief flurry of words rather than the reams of image analysis I like to write? Sadly, yes, that is exactly what it can do.
The subject this week: the new-to-Criterion A Room with a View of 1985, one of the best of the films where the three-handed dream team of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala proved that the most stuffy, self-consciously prestigious of genres, the Costume Drama Literary Adaptation, could still be active, sharp, living cinema. It is not their best – that title handily goes to Howards End – but it’s the best place to start: easy to love and graced with an extraordinary cast even by British prestige film standards, including virtual unknowns Helena Bonham Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis.
The film, adapted quite literally from E.M. Forster’s 1908, is a sunny and hopeful story of the English tendency towards emotional constipation being uncorked thanks to love and Italy. It’s a touch contrived, though I rather think that the movie does a better job selling that conceit than the book does; having flesh-and-blood humans and a physically extant Italy to anchor the story has a tendency to counteract the “Brits are chilly, Italians are lusty” implications of the scenario. Besides, there’s more to it – a lot more.
But let’s stick with it for the sake of having something to talk about. A study of a young British woman finding herself confronted with the Romantic splendor of Italy it was to be, and I had a sense of the kind of image I wanted, if not a specific shot, all picked out from the moment Nathaniel announced the title. This kind:
And I swear before all that is decent and good, that fact that it’s a depiction of a literal room with a view wasn’t part of my calculation, but boy am I amused it worked out that way.
Here we have, anyway, young Lucy Honeychurch (Bonham Carter) being confronted with the age and beauty and richness of Florence, the force which will change her in mysterious and subtle ways that shan’t become apparent until her return to England and the film’s second, probably superior half. There are two ways to read this frame, and they both matter: let’s start with the way it goes on and and and on into the background. From Lucy’s head to the buildings in the foreground, followed by the bits of rooftops you can just barely see poking out above the front building, and all the way to those impossibly distant mountains in the extreme distance, covered in haze, everything here is basically in focus and basically favored by the framing: you can’t really say that Ivory and cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts are really trying to call our attention towards any specific level of action, but invite us – along with Lucy – to suck it all up simultaneously. It is a packed image, full of history and landscape, really just full of Stuff. It’s easy to see how somebody can get sensory overload from all of this, and be plunged into the hypnotised reveries of Forster’s “the English abroad” mode.
Ah, but what else can we do with this image? We can look across it – that is, we can take Lucy’s back and the dark walls to either side of the window frame as a flat pane of action that slices across the depth of the image. In fact, though I said, and I believe, that Ivory and Pierce-Roberts aren’t making any specific part of this shot most visible, it’s those really obvious, slab-like chunks of wall to either side that dominate the frame. And here, what do we have, but a separation between Lucy and her room – the realm of the detached tourist – and the Florentine richness she gazes upon? The flatness of the foreground, contrasting so hard with the depth of the background, underscores that Lucy is at heart a foreigner, someone who carries with her all the baggage of a life in a very different culture and emotional climate. She will be changed by Italy; her gaze upon Florence is already the start of that. In the way that it’s framed, this shot emphasises the fact that such a change needs to be undertaken in the first place, that Lucy must join in life rather than stand above it, watching.
(Do you know what I apparently like a lot? Shots of people’s backs as they stare at Italian cities).