Home / TV Review: Masterpiece Classics – “A Room With A View”

TV Review: Masterpiece Classics – “A Room With A View”

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A Room With A View. Expansiveness is suggested even in the title of late British novelist E.M. Forster’s work. The title brings imaginings of romance, of possibility, of new beginnings. In the original story, young Englishwoman Lucy Honeychurch travels abroad chaperoned by her dotty older cousin Charlotte. Lucy meets a collection of personalities and experiences so strikingly new, it changes Lucy’s life and future.

Many first met Forster's story and characters in a 1985 cinema adaptation. The cinema version upheld the original story and was loyal to its underlying message: hope lies within, so follow your heart. It seems unfair to draw comparisons between this 2007 PBS Masterpiece Classic TV film version, and the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film; but one feels safe expecting some semblance of Forster’s original story.

Unfortunately, that expectation is dashed in this reworked retelling. Rather than the expansiveness of young love and a new beginning, rather than the imaginative tour of Tuscany and “the young girl transfigured” there, one is greeted with the limitations and fragmentations of memory, and a solemn procession through regret. Is this E.M. Forster’s intended story?

No, indeed. And before I begin to complain and explain, let me say I am not completely opposed to reworking great works of art. Shakespeare’s plays have been told in so many languages, modes of dress, and with so many viewpoints and emphases one cannot count the 're-visions'. Historical tales have also had dates, locations, and so forth fudged a bit in a storyline for expediency or entertainment's sake. One can forgive such stylistic changes, as long as the basic tale is unravaged.

I tried, but I just could not forgive what’s been done to Forster’s classic here. The film itself seems amateurish — badly cast, badly written, badly acted. Only the cinematography acquits itself; it accomplishes the hazy quality of memories long past, which this telling requires. The scriptwriter has employed a framing device in which the story’s heroine, Lucy, arrives at the same pensione where she met her husband years before. The film then jumps back and forth between her ‘current’ stay post-World War I, and her original stay in the same room ten years prior. I don’t normally mind a framing device; neither do I object to a story being told via flashbacks. It isn’t the method but the art (or lack) of it. Whichever device a work uses it should fit the story and have the desired emotional impact. In this case, the story itself is so fragmented as to be nearly impossible to follow; the desired emotional impact is a mystery. I feel fairly certain that confusion, frustration, and boredom were not among the emotional responses the filmmakers wished from their viewers.

E.M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View was thought to be the most hopeful and optimistic of all his works. It was also the most popular in its day. Who could not identify with Lucy, the young woman who 'found herself' in her first love and resisted the pressures of society and family to stay loyal to her own heart? In the novel's seemingly simple story, Forster slipped subtle signals to his reader to do the same — to thine own self be true. Lucy is rewarded in the novel and in the Merchant-Ivory film for following her heart above all else.

I wanted to take that journey with her again here. It’s unfair to compare this version to the lush cinema version, but it is fair to expect the confines of the story be kept. The manner may differ, the players may differ, and all is well; but the tale should be recognisable. If the screenwriter (Andrew Davies) wished to write a sequel, a new ‘slant’ on the story would be understandable – the characters would have been borrowed, but the story would have been his.

Instead, Davies 'reworked' the original. He presented it using the same title, characters and dialogue. He simply bookended it with his own scenes, changing the story in so doing. He does borrow heavily from the novel; but it's as if a magnificent ship were crunched and twisted and scattered across the ocean floor. Can we make sense of the wreckage such as we find it? Or are the parts unrecognisable even in their new configuration?

Whole scenes are shoplifted from the original work, but their original meaning is lost entirely in their new context. Not only that, but the absence of a point of view makes emotional impact impossible. There is no story arc here, no emotional crescendo. No center. We are left unsure what's going on, let alone how to feel about it. The fictional characters seem to feel the same. Characters appear here and there but the motivation for movement has been lost. This is a movie purportedly about passion in which no passion can be found.

Worse perhaps than all of that, the storyline is nearly impossible to follow. The scenes seem chosen at random — shuffled by distant memory, filmed and acted just as hazily, with any sort of meaning lost along the way. The effect is rather like peering through someone else’s photo album without having any idea who the people are. Exposition is entirely missing. So are their personalities. Cecil Vyse (actor Laurence Fox) pops up, and one has no idea who he is. One has no idea why Lucy would consent to anything he asks. Therefore one is unaffected later when she changes her mind.

As for George (Rafe Spall), “he seems like a stalker,” the person watching with me kept saying. The actor’s choice of staring at Lucy repeatedly and little else, did nothing to cover the gaping holes the script left in George Emerson’s character development. Yet George should be a galvanising figure in the story – the turning point depends upon him. Spall’s George Emerson is so pallid and passive that when he kept telling Lucy “We’re alive!” in what’s meant to be a triumphant moment, I had to wonder, “You are?”

Elaine Cassidy’s Lucy seems peevish and detached throughout the film – she’d have made a better Charlotte. And Charlotte – we’re supposed to feel a bit annoyed watching Charlotte perhaps, but not because of Sophie Thompson’s acting choices. It’s hard to say whether the strange choices made by actors who have proven quite able in prior work is due to direction. All we see is what is viewable. I say viewable, because another problem with this adaptation is that most of the dialogue is nearly impossible to decipher. It isn’t the accents – it’s that the actors mumble, swallow, and whisper their dialogue to the point you want to throw something at the screen. Sophie Thompson’s Charlotte is the worst culprit of all in that regard. Perhaps it was the actor’s or director’s choice to make Charlotte’s repression so complete that she swallowed all attempts to speak. If so, a bit more art is required. We can’t follow the story if we can’t understand what she is saying. But Thompson is not the only guilty party. At times the stuttering and whispering and air-swallowing is so overdone by various actors that the film seems more like a video made of a local, amateur ‘panto’ performance of E. M. Forster’s classic.

As for the ending – I don’t wish to spoil it for you, should you still wish to view this ‘adaptation’. But if you ever wondered what would happen if Nihilism met the Classics, this is your answer. I was left feeling at first confused, then depressed and angry, by this film after the final scene. The ten seconds of ‘cut to black’ at the end of The Sopranos’ final episode was less annoying.

Watch this film, if at all, only for the very fleeting glimpes of Florence, Italy – it was filmed on location. Surely however there are better ways to view Florence than this. The 'view' from this sad adaptation is very grim. Masterpiece Theater’s A Room with a View has brief, ‘blurred’ nudity and a ‘suggestive’ scene, but no obscenity. The only obscenity here is the depressingly empty, shattered wreck made from what used to be a hope-filled classic.

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  • rosie1843

    This adaptation was a disaster. I didn’t expect it to be a complete remake of the 1985 film. But . . . I didn’t expect Davies to change so much in both the narrative and the characterizations. The cast did not help.

  • My Favourite Book of All Time

    I think we should blame the screen writer for this atrocious rendition of Forster’s book and not the actors. I was absolutely beside myself when I watched this version, so much so that I immediately had to read the book again to reassure myself that after all these years of idolising A Room With a View, I was right to do so. I guess my biggest regret when watching this film was their idea that George had died in WW1 and indeed Forster toiled with several ideas for this book over a number of years, but he was a realist and socialist and of all the characters he identified with George. Forster wrote in 1958 A Room Without a View for the Times, and is a short piece, as a follow up to the lives of Lucy and George and now in their later 60’s early 70’s respectfully, they are enjoying their children and grandchildren. When an author bothers several decades later to give a further update on what had happened to their characters then one should be respectful of this and when adapting the story to film at least have enough respect to follow through on the authors intention. To be so arrogant as to use a different version of events that E M Forster toiled with and decided against, is almost saying that the screen writer is better than Forster, whose story and concept it is! … I found this version offensive, cheap, hammy, even down to their crass use of cinematography in Florence.

  • kathy

    Brandy review is right on. I was appalled. I stayed up late after viewing this to re-read the novel because I could not believe what had been done–especially the ending. Am glad others will be looking at the movie again, it is a classic with a lovely screenplay.

  • Fan of the original film

    I agree, this was an appalling version. No one seems to have remarked that the George character in this film was completely miscast. He seems merely like a confused, selfish, insensitive clod–one simply can’t sympathize with him.

    And yes, the new ending was completely unnecessary.

  • bliffle

    Having neither read the book or seen the 1985 movie I actually rather enjoyed this TV program. I, too, was bothered by the acting and the actors and the disjointed nature of the presentation.

    I’m guessing that the strength of Forsters writing carried through in spite of the shortcomings of the TV play, so I’m going to screen the 1985 movie in a couple days and see what I think then.

    Anyway, the TV show has piqued my interest in the story, so that’s a good thing.

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  • katie

    While it wasn’t what I expected I didn’t think it was all that bad. I do have to admit though that it has been so long since I’ve read the book that I can’t really compare the two. Taken on it’s own this version is worth watching at least once, if only to turn the viewer on to the book.