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"A Room With a View" Film Analysis: Themes and Meanings

I am an art historian and have a Master's degree in English literature. My interests include popular science, language and folklore.

George Emerson and Lucy Honeychurch, inside at last!

George Emerson and Lucy Honeychurch, inside at last!

A Room With a View: A Study in Contrasts

I have just watched the 1985 James Ivory film, A Room With a View, for the umpteenth time.

From its bustling outset to the tear-jerking scene at the end, it is a gem of a film, a bombe bursting with ingredients so delicious that it provides a feast for the senses. The movie takes us from Florence, Italy, and the Tuscan countryside to the lush gardens and sumptuous house interiors of Edwardian England, all against a rich soundtrack incorporating the music of Puccini, Beethoven and Schubert.

In the narrative of the eponymous book, author E.M. Forster satirises the late nineteenth-century cult of the aesthete, embodied by the odious Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis), who adds a note of comedy to the culture-heavy narrative. In spite of these wonderful elements and the happy ending, certain aspects of the storyline always leave me with a feeling of disquiet.

What Is the Meaning of Room With a View?

A Room With a View is a deceptively simple tale. On the surface, a boy and girl meet and fall in love. They part company and the girl becomes engaged to another man. The boy and girl are reunited in gloriously romantic circumstances, thus saving her from an unsuitable marriage and/or a life of boredom.

But, even as George Emerson (Julian Sands) triumphantly kisses Lucy (Helena Bonham Carter) in the room overlooking the Florentine piazza at the end of the movie, many questions assail me: Is George going to make Lucy any happier than Cecil Vyse? And who is George, anyway? I will answer the second question first.

Who Is George Emerson?

Initially, all we learn about George is that he is “on the railways”, an occupation that is as obscure as it is metaphorical since he and his father are always on the move. This obscurity is in contrast to the immediate exposure of Lucy Honeychurch, about whom we learn everything from the outset of the narrative.

She is a pretty, educated, middle-class young woman and an accomplished pianist. She also has enough wit to describe herself as a tourist when the Vicar of Florence asks the purpose of her trip. Lucy’s social position is affirmed when we see her in the Surrey country house (“Windy Corner”) where she lives with her widowed mother (Rosemary Leach) and teenage brother, Freddy (Rupert Graves). Lucy has just gotten engaged to Cecil and will soon be a county matron, a shadow of Mrs Honeychurch.

Motion vs. Stillness

By contrast, George Emerson and his father (Denholm Elliot) seem to have no fixed purpose. What they have is mobility, both in the social and geographical sense. Mr Emerson sports a working-class accent, and we learn from George that his father once worked as a journalist.

The Emersons also have money in plenty, enabling them to stay in the comfortable Pension Bertoli that Lucy and her cousin Charlotte (Maggie Smith) occupied in Florence. There, the Emersons gallantly offer Lucy the accommodation that Charlotte wants for her younger relative, “a room with a view”, thus establishing a connection between the two parties.

In England, the mobility of the Emersons enables them to occupy the cottage near the Honeychurch home and to pack up and leave again when rheumatism begins to afflict the elder Mr Emerson. We never find out where they are originally from or meet any of their relatives.

But if the men have the right of mobility, the “proper” woman must seek stillness. “Go and rest”, Mrs Honeychurch tells Lucy, when her daughter seems upset. In a later scene, Charlotte is being driven from the train station to Summer Street to stay with the Honeychurch family. Her rigid, upright figure is in marked contrast to that of the cycling George Emerson, who cuts right into the pony trap and (rather callously, in my opinion) destroys the tranquility of her journey.

Masculine vs. Feminine

This mobility of the Emersons and the fixity of the Honeychurch family is one of the many contrasts in the tale. Another narrative dichotomy is that of male and female. This is stressed when the picnicking group in the Tuscan hills divides into single-sex parties at the outset of the meal. George and his father very definitely occupy the male world. The pair always seem uncomfortable in domestic situations.

Even in the Pension Bertoli, they readily relinquish their rooms with views to Charlotte and Lucy. Before the narrative ends, the pair have decided to vacate Cissie Villa—the name denoting female-ness—the cottage they have rented near the Honeychurch family home. To quote George Emerson, “It’s an ugly house. We never liked it.”

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By contrast, Lucy belongs to the female realm, illustrated by the touching relationship with her mother, as well as the world of house interiors, pianos and garden parties. In one scene, Charlotte, Lucy and George are indoors in a large, round room with net curtains over the windows. It is reminiscent of being under a female petticoat or underskirt. Lucy tells George that she never wants him in the house again. She is recoiling from his passion and wants to remain safely in the female world a little longer.

On the cusp of this male/female dichotomy is Freddy Honeychurch. Freddy is not yet old enough to leave the Honeychurch home, and he spends much of the narrative pulling away uncomfortably from his mother’s influence.

Pagan vs. Christian

The Emersons have barely arrived at the cottage when Freddy—delighted to have a friend his own age—invites George to go swimming at a large pond in the local woods. On the way, the boys invite the local vicar, Reverend Mr Beebe (Simon Callow), to swim with them. Mr. Beebe doesn’t think twice before casting aside his clerical clothing, symbolising his Christianity, and jumping in the pond with the boys. The three men romp like Greek sylvan deities from the pagan, classical world, unaware that Lucy, her mother and fiancé, Cecil Vyse, are on a woodland walk.

Indoors vs. Outdoors

The scene where the buttoned-up party encounters the nude men is one of the more comic incidents in the narrative. Cecil thrashes the undergrowth with a stick, letting on to be battling dangerous intruders. Lucy struggles to stifle her giggles and Mrs Honeychurch admonishes Freddy, telling him that if he simply wants to bathe, their house is equipped with running hot and cold water.

Like George and Mr Emerson, Freddy longs to be outdoors. His only other outlet for excess energy is playing lawn tennis, and he still manages to draw reprimands from his mother for his boisterous behaviour.

In fact, all scenes of unrestrained physical behaviour are placed outdoors. In contrast to the peace of the Basilica Santa Croce, Lucy witnesses a young man horribly injured in a fight in the outside piazza. And she receives her first and second passionate kisses from George while outdoors.

In contrast to the nature-loving Emersons, Cecil Vyse fails to kiss Lucy while they are in the forest. All she ever receives from him is a peck on the cheek while they are indoors. Later, he admits that he only feels at home indoors, while Lucy tells him that she always pictures him inside a room. Their breakup also takes place inside, their interaction as flat and bloodless as everything else that has happened between them.

Red = Passion

In the movie, the colour red denotes violence and passion. The bloodshed in the piazza points to the red poppies in the field where George kisses Lucy, and later on, to the red book cover where Lucy’s love story has been published. Through the layers of net on the windows of Windy Corner, we can just about see Cecil Vyse striding up and down the flowery (feminine) garden, reading a red-covered book, the closest he gets to passion with Lucy.

Watching vs. Being Watched

One theme that runs through the narrative is that of looking and seeing. Much of the characters’ concerns centre around seeing and being seen in the right circumstances. At the outset of the narrative, Charlotte is anxious to procure “a room with a view”—ironically, the device by which she brings Lucy and George together—but she will not let Lucy stand by an open shutter in case she is seen.

Novelist Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench) espies Lucy carefully through her monocle. Later, Eleanor tells Charlotte that she “has her eye” on Lucy as a character for her next book. Cecil objects to being “on view” at Lucy’s engagement party, yet he places her in full view of his relatives and neighbours as she plays Schubert for his mother. For a while, Lucy becomes his muse, and he commands her to “stay where you are” as he spies her through a window, likening her to Ginevra de Benci, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting subjects.

By now, it is apparent that Cecil is not a suitable life partner for Lucy. The question is: What more can George Emerson offer her?

Cecil and George vs. Solitude

While no right-minded viewer or reader would elect Cecil as Lucy's life partner, I ask another question: Why did Lucy want to marry at all? Following the engagement breakup, Lucy toys with the idea of joining spinster sisters, the Miss Alans, in Greece. Lucy also voices the possibility of going up to London and sharing a flat with girlfriends, an idea that her mother dismisses instantly.

This reaction is puzzling. In London, Lucy could have been a music teacher while continuing her study of art and architecture in the galleries. Cecil is unsuitable certainly, but is George any better? Surely, a man who shouts “love” and “beauty” while perched on top of a cypress tree is not so far removed from the world of the sterile aesthete.

In one scene, George tries to tell Lucy that Cecil doesn’t know what a woman is, but really, does George know any better? In Florence, George tosses a packet of photographs into the Arno, believing that Lucy wouldn’t be able to deal with the packet—which became speckled in blood following the fracas in the piazza. In short, he believes that a young woman cannot cope with … the sight of blood?

In another scene, George promises Lucy to let her pursue her own interests and let her "be herself" if they marry. But with her financial freedom, an unmarried Lucy could have done this anyway.

Married Women vs. Single Women

One clue to Lucy’s marriage anxiety is how the narrative treats single women. Charlotte Bartlett and Catherine and Teresa Alan are financially independent women. They’re free to pursue cultural interests, in contrast to the fixed position of Mrs Honeychurch.

But the narrative reduces the unmarried, older women to figures of fun. It’s “the tiresome Miss Alans” and “poor Charlotte”, who did not regard herself as entitled to a cushion when sitting on the grass during the Tuscan picnic.

In keeping with the mores of the time, married or single men could acquire status and freedom—as epitomised by the Emersons. But, in the same narrative, only married and engaged women commanded respect.

Lucy Honeychurch vs. the Class System

In that final scene, we see George and Lucy kissing passionately, framed in the open window of their Pension Bertoli room. Lucy has brought George into her life, and he is now able to express himself indoors. He is now living, as his father put it, "For love."

But, a question remains: Are Mr Emerson and his son really that naïve? If Lucy hadn’t been possessed of private means, if she had been a poor girl, would Mr Emerson have pushed her so eagerly as a suitable bride for his son?

I like to think that Lucy and George lived happily ever after. As the name of the book/movie suggests, it all depends on your point of view.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Mary Phelan

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