"ROOM With a View" is a veddy, veddy British comedy of manners, the sort that draws knowing titters from the cognoscenti and presents American Anglo-holics with a chance to chuckle anew at the starched antics of the English well-to-do. Yes, those sexually repressed Edwardians are at it again -- re-evaluating their moral standards amid swarthier cultures in southerly climes.
While it is unbelievable to me that anyone would want to see this particular theme reworked, there are doubtless scores of Brit fanciers still suffering withdrawal after the last episode of "Jewel in the Crown," and the prim miscegnation of "Passage to India."
"Room With a View," with its genteel cliches and its mouth-puckering social commentary, will absolutely please. It is a gorgeous, glimmering film adaptation of E.M. Forster's sweetest novel, an affectionate study of a party of English gone globetrotting, their Baedekers held close like talismans. But these travel books prove no real defense against the seductive influences of Italy. And when the tourists return to the Surrey countryside, they are altered by their adventures, much as England herself was changed by the coming of the modern age.
Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott are the best-known members of the excellent ensemble cast, who easily convince us that they are dear aunties, rectors and other stiff-upper-lippers. Smith is lovably priggish as the impossible Cousin Charlotte of heroine Lucy Honeyworth, the raven-haired, cinch-waisted center of this quaint, romantic parable.
Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy is so exquisite looking that it's hard to care whether or not she can act, which she can. With her heart-shaped face and dewy complexion, she could have come straight off a 19th-century soap box lid.
Smith shepherds her charge about Florence where they meet an assortment of eccentric English at a richly appointed pensione. The pale travelers are ghostly against the golden Florentine afternoons, escaping mostly unscathed the romantic allure of meadows full of poppies and statues of heroically proportioned males.
It is a lovely film as photographed by Tony Pierce-Roberts, whose meticulous composition sets the tourists apart from the glories around them. The cathedrals and countryside are backdrops upstaged by their self-centered chauvinism.
The Emersons are the charming exceptions -- Elliott is the father and Julian Bond is his son, an impassioned railroad executive who falls in love with Lucy. She wounds him when she becomes engaged to a snobby poppinjay (played by Daniel Day Lewis) who encourages her reading habits, but not her affections. It is then up to Lucy to choose between the two young suitors and the classes they symbolize.
Californian James Ivory directs his precise and mannered cast with delicacy and some tedium. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote the vinegary, witty screenplay that underscores the innocence of an era when a stolen kiss was thought a shocking exploit. Her adaptation, broken into chapters with elaborate headings, makes the film seem like a literary work, as cozy as curling up with a Forster book in a red velvet chair in a sunny morning room. It is not at all like watching a film go by. It takes work.
ROOM WITH A VIEW -- At the Key.