Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A Room with a Popular View: The World of Merchant Ivory

 There’s been much talk recently about the Marvel Universe, and how it might be affected by the Motion Picture Academy’s controversial new plan to add an Oscar for Best Popular Film. At present, no one knows what the criteria for “popularity” might be, and there’s legitimate concern that the Academy Awards might be turning into a People’s Choice-type competition. (Best Screen Kiss, anyone?)

One thing’s certain: the new Oscar will not be won by a Merchant Ivory sort of production. The longstanding partnership that produced such major costume dramas as The Bostonians, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day had no interest in superhero flicks. The movies of the Merchant Ivory Universe are quiet, literate, sumptuously filmed, and usually based on novels by British and American masters. Their target audience: former English Majors, I’m quite sure. Like me.

When James Ivory won a 2018 Oscar for adapting Call Me By Your Name into a screenplay, the Academy was perhaps honoring the Merchant Ivory partnership, the longest in the history of independent cinema. Producer Ismail Merchant and director Ivory were together for 44 years, as both professional and domestic partners. Their nearly 40 films, many of them award-winners, generally also called on the talents of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabala, who won two Oscars for her work. It was an exotic collection of talents and nationalities. Merchant (who died in 2005 at age 68) once said: "It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory . . . I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!"

All of this is running through my head because I just finished re-watching 1985’s A Room with a View, a classic (and, of course, classy) Merchant Ivory production that competed for 8 Oscars and won three (for adapted screenplay, art direction, and costume design –those creamy white suits for the men and flowing Edwardian gowns for the ladies). The film is based on E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel about sheltered young Lucy Honeychurch who blossoms into a woman in love in the aftermath of a trip to Italy. The film begins at the pensione where a gaggle of affluent Brits on holiday uphold their English standards as a bulwark against the raw Italian passions they encounter in the piazzas of Florence. It’s a reminder, for one thing, of how splendidly the British train their actors, and how well they succeed at conveying lovable English eccentricity. Among the supporting cast are Judi Dench as a romantically-inclined lady novelist, Denholm Elliott as an armchair philosopher, Simon Callow as a jolly parson, and Daniel Day-Lewis as an oh-so-stuffy fiancé. Best of all is Maggie Smith as a prim maiden aunt who drives everyone crazy while insisting that they not worry about her in the least. The romantic center is played by nineteen-year-old Helena Bonham Carter, in her “English rose” period, a far cry from her eccentric look and behavior in such recent films as Oceans Eight.

I’m, not certain viewers will find in A Room with a View much social relevance for the current age. This is escapist fare, with a bit of smart commentary about the pruderies and the cultural imperialism of a bygone era. Amusingly, the one bit of possible controversy involves three of our major characters frolicking quite starkers in a local swimming hole. All three are male, and their behavior is childishly innocent. Quite a neat contrast to the passionate male nudity in Call Me By Your Name.

This Puccini aria, sung by Kiri te Kanawa, beautifully sets the mood for A Room With a View

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