Cast List Power Rankings: A Room with a View (1985)

It’s not something you’ll detect as quickly as my love for horror or sci-fi, but I’m an easy sucker for costume dramas.  Other genre fans are organized & mobilized enough to throw their own conventions where oceans of nerds line up to have Elvira sign their bald spots, but there isn’t really an equivalent for the costume drama (unless there are Ren Faire booths I don’t know about; please report back, if so).  And yet, if you’ve ever found yourself sipping Pinot Grigio at an opening-weekend screening of a Downton Abbey movie, you know the fandom for costume dramas can be just as electric. One buffoonish misstep from Mr. Molelsey at a stuffy dinner party and the crowd goes wild.  In that insular, quietly fired-up subculture, the names Merchant Ivory invoke rock star adulation the same way names like Romero, Carpenter, and Cronenberg get horror nerds’ brains whirring.  Somehow, I had never seen an Merchant-produed, Ivory-directed movie myself, though, despite the phrase “Merchant Ivory” being a recognizable adjective for a type of buttoned-up, award winning costume drama that I very much enjoy.  I recently filled in that knowledge gap with the producer-director duo’s breakout hit A Room with a View, which earned them three Oscars, four BAFTAs, and decades’ worth of household name recognition. 

Predictably, I had a wonderful time with it.  For all its Awards Circuit prestige, A Room with a View is a small, sweet romcom of manners that recalls the heightened social-maneuvers humor I love in Jane Austen comedies (please do not lecture me about the century’s difference between the Regency & Edwardian eras; I assure you I do not care).  What really floored me is how stacked the cast is with genre giants of the costume drama, all working in delicious harmony like spoonfuls of honey stirred into afternoon tea.  And since there would be no practical use for fully reviewing this genre-standard award magnet that hit American shores the year I was born, I’d mostly just like to discuss each member of the main cast individually.  Here’s a quick listing of the central players in A Room with a View, ranked from most to least essential.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse – DDL plays the ultimate dipshit fop, an uptight misogynist dandy whose wealth & status make him look like great marriage material on paper . . . until you spend ten seconds in his slimy presence.  It’s incredible how easily he steals the show, considering that he doesn’t appear on-screen for at least the first third of the runtime.  Once he crashes the party, though, he delivers a sublimely hateworthy comedic performance that the movie would be hollow without.

2. Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch – HBC is even more of a costume drama heavy-hitter than DDL, and I have to assume this early role was what landed her all that steady work in the unsteady past (unless there’s a huge Lady Jane fan club out there that I’m unaware of).  She’s a perfectly furious, frustrated teen as the film’s lead, stuck between the rich idiot she should want (DDL) and the hot idiot she does want (TBA).  Her furrowed brow while concentrating on complex piano pieces conveys a rich inner life in contrast to the sheltered social one she’s allowed to live outside her head, which makes her a great audience surrogate for young costume drama nerds who can’t wait to move out of their parents’ house.  She’s also got gloriously thick, extravagant curls of hair that are enviable at any age.

3. Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett – Speaking of Downton, Dame Margaret Natalie Smith brings long-established stage & screen prestige to the proceedings, even if she’s not allowed to cut as loose as she does with her withering quips as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham.  She’s in the same uptight chaperone role here as she plays in The Secret Garden, except her stiffness makes her the butt of her sister’s jokes instead of inspiring fear & good behavior in the teen she’s supposed to be keeping in check (HBC).  I’m sure it’s just a stock character Smith plucked out of her 60+ years & 80+ IMDb credits worth of experience acting on camera, but she does it well, and the punchlines at her expense are always solid (often to the refrain of “Poor, poor Charlotte”).

4. Denholm Elliott as Mr. Emerson – More of a That Guy character actor than the legendary Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott is nonetheless equally matched as her doddering comic foil.  He’s cast as a sweetheart eccentric, one whose “tactless”, “indelicate” boisterousness constantly pulls the rug out from under the rules-obsessed chaperone.  He also gets to ramble at length about the inane gender politics of who should get to have “a room with a view” at the opening hotel setting, a scene that feels like a contemporary SNL sketch written by a comedian who’s only seen the trailer, not the movie proper.

5. Fabia Drake & Joan Henley as the Misses Alan – The perpetually traveling spinster “sisters” are the closest thing the movie offers as aspirational objects of envy, especially if you read them as covert lesbians in a Boston marriage that everyone else just has to tolerate.

6. Judi Dench as Eleanor Lavish – You’d think Dame Judith Olivia Dench would rank as worthier competition to Dame Maggie Smith here, but her trash-novelist side character isn’t afforded much momentum to make a dent on-screen.  She does push Smith’s uptight nerd into her biggest fuck-ups, though (including spilling the beans on her young cousin/ward’s scandalous, unchaperoned kiss, published for all to read under a half-hearted pseudonym), which makes for some great comedy at her expense.  Poor, poor Charlotte.

7. Simon Callow as The Reverend Mr. Beebe – There are plenty of misbehaving vicars out there in cinemaland, but not many get to hang dong while roughhousing with their flock in the local swimming pond.  You’d expect it to be the bigger shock that HBC runs into her naked crush or her naked brother when she stumbles across said roughhousing on an afternoon stroll, but the naked vicar earns the biggest laugh.

8. Rupert Graves as Freddy Honeychurch – HBC’s younger, rowdier brother is exactly who you’d expect to stumble across in the throes of flagrant public nudity.  He doesn’t have much effect on the film’s tone or plot, but he is a playful, delightful source of chaos that makes HBC reluctant to graduate from childish japes to sincere adult emotions & romance.

9. Rosemary Leach as Mrs. Honeychurch – The siblings’ mother might get in a few great laughs with her passive aggressive jabs at “Poor, poor Charlotte,” but she doesn’t make much impact outside that mockery of her sister.  I also couldn’t tell if the actor looked at all familiar, or if she just had a vague resemblance to Kathy Bates.

10. Julian Sands as George Emerson – Has Julian Sands ever delivered a good performance in anything?  He’s at least laughably bad in films like Boxing Helena & Argento’s Phantom of the Opera.  I foolishly assumed he landed those jobs because he was impressive in the Merchant Ivory costume dramas that predate them, but holy shit, his overly mannered performances don’t even feel at home in the overly mannered past.  It’s a testament to DDL’s movie-making performance as the ridiculous cad Cecil Vyse that George Emerson comes across as HBC’s best option for love & marriage.  You could replace Sands with a cardboard cutout of a romance-novel cover model and the movie would be exactly the same.  He’s reliably useless.

-Brandon Ledet

Phantom Thread (2017)

Because of his reputation as a formalist & a high-brow intellect, people often overlook a very important aspect of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, even when heaping on praise: he’s damn funny. This may be because the humor in PTA’s movies is usually coated with a thick grime of terrifying, soul-destroying bitterness. For instance, it’s difficult to describe the humor of Daniel Day-Lewis threatening to slit a stranger’s throat in There Will be Blood or Phillip Seymour Hoffman shouting “pig-Fuck!” in The Master, but those moments are indeed amusingly intense. Anderson’s latest, Phantom Thread, is a wonderful feature-length continuation of this tradition. It may take audiences a few minutes to defrost from the expectation of watching an Important, Oscar-Worthy Drama to realize it, but Phantom Thread really is a wickedly funny movie, the perfect encapsulation of PTA’s bitter, hubristic humor. Detailing the power dynamics of a dangerously tense long-term relationship between a 1950s Londoner dressmaker and his waitress-turned-muse, you might be tempted to assume the film is a tragically dour period piece with little patience for silliness. Instead, Daniel Day-Lewis & relative newcomer Vicky Krieps verbally spar in a nonstop comedic assault for the full two-hour runtime. The film still excels as a gorgeous, meticulously crafted period piece with dead serious things to say about power dynamic struggles in artist-muse romantic relationships; it just does so while making you laugh in wholly unexpected ways at every twisted turn in its intimate, absurdly well-mannered narrative. Paul Thomas Anderson has certainly been funny before, but never at this duration or consistency.

Reynolds Woodcock is sure to be remembered as one of the greater, more intense characters ever performed onscreen, a name as iconic as Norman Bates or Rupert Pupkin or, appropriately enough, Daniel Plainview. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the renowned dressmaker with the delicate, careful darkness of Werner Herzog’s speaking voice. Having let the praise for his (admittedly gorgeous) dress designs go to his head, Woodcock has devolved into an insufferable twerp who demands that the army of women who actually put in the labor to make his business functional (including a rotating cast of muses-du-jour) bend to his every whim at a moment’s notice. Phantom Thread flirts with the thematic possibilities of championing the unnoticed work of the women whom Woodcock steamrolls or parsing out exactly what he means when he describes himself as an “incurable confirmed bachelor.” Mostly, though, it just has a quiet laugh at the tension his function as a tyrannical drama queen generates in a house of women who do not have the power to tell him “No.” This dynamic shifts when his latest muse, Alma (Krieps), refuses to be steamrolled along with the rest and defiantly intends to treat Woodcock like the “spoiled little baby” he truly is. From then on, the movie details a three-way power struggle within the Woodcock household (Lesley Manville holds down the third corner as Reynold’s deliciously icy sister, Cyril), with everyone involved seemingly getting perverted pleasure out of the clash, regardless of their overly dramatic complaints. Despite his delicate, mannered exterior, Woodcock drives, eats, and structures his romances like a thrill-seeking maniac. It turns out he enjoys having his hubristic displays of power challenged, though, something no woman in his life had ever dared to do before Alma (besides his cutthroat, no-bullshit sister). Through that challenge they build a curiously violent, deceptively well-balanced life together.

You may be able to find a better version of this kind of tragically classy romance in an Alfred Hitchcock or Douglas Sirk picture. The Love Witch may be a flashier attempt at a playfully fashionable period pastiche with strong feminist themes. mother! may offer a more convincingly absurdist critique of artist-muse relationship dynamics. The Duke of Burgundy may be a more immersively gorgeous, cheekily fun examination of power struggles in a kinkily-mannered long-term romance. What Phantom Thread offers that resists comparison to other works is a very particular sense of humor distinct to Anderson’s collaborative energy with Day-Lewis. It’s difficult to describe why Woodcock peering menacingly over his glasses or the way PTA substitutes food for sex in this picture are so wickedly amusing; I actually suspect a lot of people won’t see it that way at all, given the subjective nature of humor. If you enter Phantom Thread looking for a modernist critique of the tyrannical Troubled Artist type set against a visually interesting backdrop & a sweeping, classy score (from fellow frequent PTA collaborator & Radiohead vet Jonny Greenwood), the movie is more than happy to oblige you. If you’re not laughing through the tension of the weaponized “polite” exchanges between Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril Woodcock, though, I’m not sure you’re fully appreciating what the movie is offering. This really is one of the finest comedies I’ve seen in a while. It has a wickedly peculiar, distinct sense of humor to it that you won’t find in many other features, a comedic tone Reynolds himself would likely describe as “a little naughty.” Just pray you don’t find yourself in a dead silent audience of intellectuals hellbent on taking every detail of that naughtiness seriously.

-Branodn Ledet