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

Colin Firth, Peter O’Toole, Romantic Competition, and the Immortal Bard

I was mostly on board with the subtlety & restraint exercised in December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, but there was one glaring area where the film’s delicate approach to its surrealist premise could have benefited from a stronger hand. The film establishes a version of the afterlife that runs on a kind of fame economy, where the level of a historical figure or celebrity’s postmortem notoriety determines their privilege & prestige in an Eternal Limbo. Our introduction into this world is through a Shakespearean actor (Peter O’Toole) and his bitter assassin (Colin Firth) as they die near-simultaneously and blindly enter the fame-economy afterlife. Mostly, the breathing room allowed by the film’s patient, delicate approach to surrealism invites philosophical discussion & audience hypothesis on how, exactly, this fantasy realm operates. That exact openness to interpretation is likely the movie’s greatest strength. Where the restraint frustrates me, however, is in not populating its afterword with real life historical figures & dead celebrities. Besides familiar names like Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, the movie’s ranks are mostly filled with fictional, archetypal placeholders: a psychedelic rocker, a Freudian psychologist, a Russian political poet, etc. Not using familiar personalities to fully explore the absurdity of its premise seemed like a missed opportunity, especially when it came to the comeuppance of the movie’s chief cad, played by Peter O’Toole. It seems obvious that a pompous Shakespearean actor obnoxiously blowing hot air in an afterlife populated by famous historical figures would have an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, but it’s a moment that never arrives. Oddly, his co-star did have that confrontation with Shakespeare many years later, despite Colin Firth not being nearly as closely associated with the bard.

It’s strange to say that Peter O’Toole is known mostly as a Shakespearean actor, when he has never appeared in any Shakespearean films. Before he transitioned to TV & film work in the late 1950s and eventually achieved infamy as the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was already a well-known thespian, respected for his work on the British stage, especially in the coveted role of Hamlet. Once he blossomed into a screen actor, however, he mostly left Shakespeare behind, possibly out of fear of being typecast, possibly by simply aging out of the Hamlet role. He did portray King Henry II in two Shakespeare-esque films (Becket & Lion in Winter), but mostly left his Shakespeare career on the stage, not onscreen. Still, he was closely associated enough with Shakespearean drama as a medium that his casting in Wings of Fame was a meta reflection of his real life persona. His co-star in the film, Colin Firth, was also “discovered” while playing Hamlet on the stage, but was much more closely associated with another infamous literary author: Jane Austen. Firth’s role as Mr. Darcy in the 90s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (and, parodically, in the Bridget Jones franchise) would command much of his career onscreen for well over a decade, falling into the exact kind of restrictive typecasting Peter O’Toole managed to avoid. It’s strange that despite both actors emerging through a British stage tradition in the same Shakespearean role and both separately working with Lawrence Olivier, the only thing they’ve happened to collaborate on together was this single Dutch picture about fame in the afterlife. What’s even stranger is that where Wings of Fame withholds the satisfaction of seeing famed Shakespearean actor Peter O’Toole get into an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, the Jane Austen-associated Colin Firth would later play Shakespeare’s nemesis for the entire length of a high-profile, Oscars-sweeping feature.

John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is one of those decent, mildly entertaining pictures that seems to draw a lot of critical heat merely because it was showered with a heap of Academy Awards. Although the film is dressed up like a prestige costume drama, it’s much more spiritually aligned with Shakespeare’s more frivolous farces (and not necessarily the exceptional ones). Everyone can enjoy a decent screwball comedy once in a while, though, and the film maintains its endearingness as such, especially now that the unfair, tremendous weight of its many Oscar wins has faded. Joseph Fiennes stars as (a forgettable, bland) William Shakespeare, who is suffering severe writer’s block as his romantic life hits a major rut. He finds his manic pixie dream muse in a noblewoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who auditions for his latest play (eventually titled Romeo & Juliet) in disguise as a man. Surface level meta humor about the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s work (drag, comic misunderstandings, drunken fools, confusion with Christopher Marlowe, exact lines & scenes from Romeo & Juliet, etc.) unfolds along with this new romance and shapes the course of the play the couple are collaborating on. Enter Colin Firth as Lord Wessex, an empty-pursed nobleman who arranges to marry Paltrow’s disinterested theatre nerd for her dowry. As Shakespeare’s romantic rival and an all-around cad, Colin Firth’s mustache-twirling villain brings life to an otherwise light romantic romp. Similar caricatures from Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush, and (Bostonian sore thumb) Ben Affleck are amusing in flashes, but Firth is so over-the-top as the villain it’s near-impossible to focus anywhere else. First of all, his look includes the world’s worst goatee and a dangly earring. He’s introduced negotiating marital terms with his intended’s father by asking questions like “Is she fertile? Is she obedient?” Minutes later, before he even announces his marriage plans to their shared love interest, he pulls a knife on Shakespeare “for coveting his property.” He only gets more dastardly from there, singlehandedly setting up the forbidden love oppression that required two whole families of brutes to establish in Romeo & Juliet.

This romantic rivalry between Wessex & Shakespeare, enforced through violence & wealth, is far more intense than what I was hoping to see in Wings of Fame. My hope was for a mere Shakespeare cameo, where the bard could offend Peter O’Toole’s posh sensibilities either by insulting his acting skills or by acting like an Al Bundy-modeled slob in a moment of don’t-meet-your-heroes disillusionment. Wishing for for something that specific to happen in a movie’s script is usually an idiotic way to approach cinema, but Wings of Fame feels like it sets up that conflict (or any kind of interaction, really) by sending a fictional, famous Shakespearean actor played by a real-life, famous Shakespearean actor to an afterworld populated by dead famous people, Shakespeare blatantly excluded. That’s what makes it so strange that Colin Firth would later be the actor to participate in an onscreen rivalry with the bard. What’s even stranger is that Wessex’s contentious relationship with Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love is not too dissimilar to the main rivalry that drives Wings of Fame. Once they arrive in the afterlife, O’Toole’s Shakespearean actor and his professionally bitter assassin get caught up in a (passionless) love triangle as they compete for the affections of the same demure French pop singer. Of course, O’Toole plays the blowhard cad in that scenario, not Firth, who would assume those duties in Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare in Love is a much lesser film than Wings of Fame (although the pair are largely incomparable), but it both complicates & satisfies the two caveats I had with the otherwise impeccable surrealist comedy that had managed to unite Firth & O’Toole onscreen. All of the romantic rivalry intensity & onscreen conflict with Shakespeare himself I felt was missing from Wings of Fame was oddly misplaced in Shakespeare in Love; it also happened to feature the wrong actor of the duo.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s look at its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint.

-Brandon Ledet