Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, "A Room With a View" follows a young, upper-crust Englishwoman in her quest for what's really important in life. Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) travels to Florence with her chaperone (Maggie Smith), but unlike others, who go to study art, Lucy is studying something else. At her first meal, she meets tall, blond George Emerson (Julian Sands), who tilts his plate to her, revealing vegetables in the shape of a question mark.
George, who is generally, if abstractly, smitten with life (he's given to shrieking "Truth! Beauty! Joy!" from the tops of trees), is particularly smitten with Lucy, but she puts him off. When his father, a lovable freethinker (Denholm Elliott), suggests that her love could stop his brooding, she suggests George collect stamps instead. When the movie returns to England, we find out why. Lucy wants to marry the right sort of man, and that means Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day Lewis), a sneering, priggish (but very proper) bookworm.
"A Room With a View" proceeds in segments separated by titles, against the strikingly ornate backdrops of Florentine museums, churches and piazzas, and the rich bric-a-brac of English country homes. The movie is masterfully designed (by Gianni Quaranta in Italy and Brian Ackland-Snow in England) and shot in soft, natural light (by Tony Pierce-Roberts) -- it's a bath for the eye, an antique collector's dream.
Director James Ivory and screen writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have provided "A Room With a View" with a droll, kidding tone. The movie's full of slapstick touches (as Vyse strolls the grounds reading aloud, he's hit in the cheek with a tennis ball) -- it's a sort of highbrow cartoon. And one of the nice things about "A Room With a View" is the way Ivory's hit upon a way to use Carter's high-forehead earnestness for comedy: She becomes a master of the double take, knitting her brows, pursing her cupid's-bow lips, glancing off camera through a fat, delicious pause.
The tone, though, isn't consistent. At times, Ivory and Jhabvala seem to be making a period piece, at others a campy sendup of a period piece. The movie is jokey and self-referential, the humor anachronistically Monty Pythonish (George and his father, at one point, treat a pair of old biddies like flowerpots). That makes the movie fun, just as Monty Python was fun (although "A Room With a View" is awfully more genteel than, say, "The Life of Brian"), but it also makes it weightless.
In key roles, "A Room With a View" is exceedingly badly acted: Denholm Elliott walks through the old Denholm Elliott curmudgeon number, and Lewis, flattening his lips and batting his eyelashes, spells prissy with capital letters. But that doesn't matter, because in "A Room With a View" we're not supposed to relate to the characters -- we're just supposed to admire how darn British they are. There's no real narrative here (a girl picks one man instead of another) and no substance either. If amusing, "A Room With a View" is little more than a lark, a series of skits, a two-hour tribute to the rich British eccentric.
A Room With a View, at the Key, is unrated and contains some nudity.