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.