Picks and Pans Review: A Room with a View

updated 03/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

There's a revivifying charge of greatness in this movie. And the best part is, you don't anticipate it. From producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the trio behind such book-to-film translations as Henry James's The Bostonians and Jean Rhys's Quartet, you expect a puppy-dog faithfulness to source that often crosses the line from stately to plodding. This time they've blown the dust off the pages. Working from E.M Forster's less than celebrated 1908 novel, written when Forster was 29 (with the triumphs of Howards End and A Passage to India ahead of him), the filmmakers have uncovered a masterful comedy of manners. Oh, the snob appeal is still in evidence, but there's nothing stuffy about this one. Room's structure is deceptively simple. A young Englishwoman, played by Helena (Lady Jane) Bonham Carter, visits Florence, chaperoned by her spinster cousin, acted with anguished grace by Maggie Smith. Disappointed that her pensione is run by a Cockney and that her room is facing a courtyard instead of the Arno, Bonham Carter complains she might as well be in London. Forster's point about the English, of course, is that they are always in England, closed off to any new culture afforded them. Bonham Carter meets handsome, headstrong Julian Sands, a young Britisher traveling with his vulgarian father, Denholm Elliott. Bonham Carter gets more than she bargained for, first witnessing a bloody stabbing in a piazza, and later being passionately kissed by Sands in the erotically lush Italian countryside. Shaken, she returns home, gets engaged to a prig and settles back into conformity until Sands and his father make a last attempt to save her. Director Ivory displays a keen understanding of the hypocrisy festering beneath the elegant surfaces of Edwardian society. The comic highlight is a telling scene in which the rigidly costumed Bonham Carter and her mother come upon Sands, Bonham Carter's brother (Rupert Graves) and a plump minister (well played by Simon Callow) frolicking naked and innocent in a muddy pond. The sterling cast, indeed, could not be bettered. But special praise must go to Smith and Elliott, whose alchemy turns small roles into bold and memorable characterizations. With faultless assurance and ingenuity, the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team has made it all come together this time in one of the best literary adaptations ever filmed. (Not rated)

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