Merchant Ivory Productions, led by director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, became a household name with 'A Room with a View,' the first of their extraordinary adaptations of E. M. Forster novels. A cherubic nineteen-year-old Helena Bonham Carter plays Lucy Honeychurch, a young, independent-minded, upper-class Edwardian woman who is trying to sort out her burgeoning romantic feelings, divided between an enigmatic free spirit (Julian Sands) she meets on vacation in Florence and the priggish bookworm (Daniel Day-Lewis) to whom she becomes engaged back in the more corseted Surrey. Funny, sexy, and sophisticated, this gargantuan art-house hit features a sublime supporting cast—including Simon Callow, Judi Dench, Denholm Elliott, Maggie Smith—and remains a touchstone of intelligent romantic cinema.
We've gotten to a point in cinema where there have been so many films made about so many things that the vast majority of them can make you say, "I've seen this before." For those that are similar to others, it now comes down to the style and storytelling to make the new ones stand out. Take, for example, '(500) Days of Summer.' The story is simple: lonely guy falls for new girl, they get together, it's perfect for a short time, they break up, he's destroyed. (If you haven't seen it, don't worry – I haven't spoiled a thing. All of those details are spelled out in the first few scenes. Plus, it wouldn't really be a relationship story if that wasn't the case, right?) Instead of making you say, "I've seen this before," it stands out so perfectly due to the style and storytelling. Those unique aspects make the should-be unbearable and repetitious story worth the emotional investment. Such is the case with 'A Room with a View.' Most period pieces about strong and opinionated females coming-of-age run down an identical path; however, it's within the storytelling that it separates itself from the others.
'A Room with a View' is not only a notable Merchant/Ivory film, but it's the one that landed them on the mainstream map as filmmakers. When it was released in 1986, the world of independent cinema wasn't what it is now. Films independently produced outside of the studio system weren't as easy to come by. Often times, movies like 'A Room with a View' (which still doesn't have a rating) didn't go through the MPAA ratings board. At the time, tiny $3 million films like this very rarely went on to make $20 million domestically – but even then, in 1986, 'A Room with a View' stood out. And, comparing it to the others, it still stands out 29 years later.
A 21-year-old Helena Bonham Carter leads the film as Lucy Honeychurch, a strong young woman from a proper English upbringing. When the film begins, she and her cousin (Maggie Smith) chaperone have just arrived at their hotel in Florence, Italy. The "proper" reason for being there would include her desire to study a unique aspect of Italian history or art; however, Lucy isn't exactly a predictable and typical woman. Instead, she's like a hybrid of privileged female characters from 'Downton Abbey' and anything Jane Austin. Lucy visits Florence only with vacationing intent.
Upon arriving in Florence, she's immediately disappointed in the room that the hotel has to offer. Lucy chose this specific hotel because it's known for the view. Instead of seeing the riverways and chapels, her balcony only reveals a view of an alley below. This opening serves as an allegory for the story that lies ahead; sometimes, the seemingly perfect things that lie ahead aren't as great as they are made out to be. Amidst the disappointment, we have to make the decisions that yield the best results for us instead of those that are said to be the best for us.
In Florence, Lucy meets a passionate and down-to-Earth young British man named George (Julian Sands) who is obviously attracted to her. While she secretly enjoys being with him, he's not the driven and educated man that Lucy has been taught to seek her whole life, so she doesn't give him the time of day. Upon returning home to England, she meets the opposite man (Daniel Day-Lewis) and immediately agrees to marry him. The internal conflict that ensues is one of gut vs. logical decision-making.
'A Room with a View' is filled with likeable characters that carry it along. Between them, the delightful screenplay and its witty and subtly comedic dialog, it stands out amongst the other period pieces of its type. It carries a genuine quality that's hard to come by and deserves to be recognized when discovered.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion Collection has place 'A Room with a View' on a Region A BD-50 Blu-ray disc and placed it in a standard-to-The Collection clear keepcase. The spine reads number 775 in The Collection. Included in the case is a fold-out booklet containing transfer notes and an essay about the film critic and author John Pym. While 'A Room with a View' is unrated by the MPAA, please note that it would easily receive an R rating solely for an innocent scene with three men bathing fully nude in a pond. That's literally the only thing that would keep it from being a PG period piece.
In both the "about the transfer" notes and on the back cover, 'A Room with a View' totes its new 4K transfer that happened under the supervision and approval of its director and cinematographer. When it comes to the cleanliness and the clarity of this restored transfer, you can tell that there is an extra bit of love put into it, presumably due to his oversight. It's no surprise to learn of their involvement in the transfer process; however, there's a reoccurring problem on this disc that takes away from all the good. I describe this issue as having the characteristics of flickering noise caused by an uncalibrated television, only with a grid like pattern across the screen. Worried that this might be an issue caused by my set, I looked up other reviews online to find that no one else is talking about this issue, but one High-Def Digest reader reached out to us to see if we've noticed the same issue. Because it's not widespread and because it's unlikely that two filmmakers would allow the remaster to hit shelves like this, I'm led to believe that this is a sporadic problem within the disc itself and not the transfer. For those who are picking up or who have already picked up this disc, beware that you might also see this issue pop up throughout the film.
Aside from that, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of the film is quite fantastic. Aging flaws such as specs, grime and scratches are nowhere to be found. Vertical runs have been cleaned up to the point where you really have to be looking for them to notice their once-existant presence. Very faint traces of runs are there, but they are not easy to spot, nor are they ever a distraction. The film's pallet plays an integral role in the visual design. Because of that, you can tell that extra effort was put into making the colors pop. A lot of the pallet is quite muted and dull; however, when the blues and reds enter the picture, it takes on a whole new life. The level of fine details are not on par with what we expect from today's films, but it's still fantastic for the nearly 30-year-old film.
A room with a view comes with a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. While it's completely void of pops, crackle, thumps and other age-revealing characteristics, it does have one slight flaw linked to the music. This doesn't happen frequently, but at times you can hear warbles within the swelling moments of the beautiful scoring, in particular when notes are held. In those moments, there is a slight shakiness that can be heard underneath them, but aside from that, the audio is pretty solid.
For being a two-channel mix, it's surprising to me to hear how much sound was layered within the movies audio. The warbling music aside, all elements that make up this mix sound great. The vocal track carries the clarity and rich punch needed to accent the actors' performances; the effects mixing contains a whole lot of environmental sounds that bring the settings to life. The crazy part (that can sometimes become an overloading nuissance), is the amount of sound - both dialogue and effects - that's layered in specific scenes. Being that all sound emits from just two speakers, it becomes a little overwhelming and has the potential to make you feel audibly claustrophobic within it's jam-packed track.
'A Room with a View' may be period-piece romantic drama like the many others to come before it and since then, but it's got a lot more going for it than most. The characters, performances, writing and style distance it from the norm. It's easy to invest in and enjoy a film like this. Although it received the Criterion Collection treatment, there are still a few problems with the transfer. It appears that there's a batch of discs that went out with video quality issues that leave a flickering pattern of noise onscreen that pops up from time to time. As no other reviewers have noted this issue yet (only I and one High-Def reader have called it out so far), it appears to be an intermittent disc flaw. The audio remaster is decent, but the music quality highlights an underlying warbling issue. Two new hearty special features have been included with this new transfer. Given that you don't receive one of the bum discs, then 'A Room with a View' is yet another worthy Criterion release - but if you receive one with video issues, then you'll be sorely disappointed.