A Film with a View: Atmospheric Cinematography and Subtext in A ROOM WITH A VIEW

8 July 2012

When James Ivory made his 1985 film A Room with a View, adapted from E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, his challenge was to find a distinct cinematic voice for the narrative.  That is, Forster had successfully found a voice for the narrative with written language, so, if Ivory wanted an equally successful film, he had to figure out how to communicate the narrative with cinematics, cinema’s language.  But where to start when assembling the devices of cinema for such a narrative?  If you are James Ivory, you may start with cinema’s foundation, cinematography, and Ivory depends heavily on atmospheric cinematography in A Room with a View.

The trick to atmospheric cinematography is it must enhance the meaning of the shots or scenes, but not overwhelm the audience into distraction.  Through atmospheric cinematography Ivory and this team infuse A Room with a View with emotion and poignancy, as well as incorporate Forster’s complicated subtext.

Briefly, A Room with a View follows Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), a young British woman.  The film opens with Lucy’s chaperoned trip to Italy, with her uptight, traditional cousin Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). While on this trip Lucy meets George Emerson (Julian Sands) and soon finds herself smitten with him.  However, things move quickly between Lucy and George, and Charlotte urges Lucy back to England to avoid scandal.  Shortly after this return, Lucy attempts forgetting about George by accepting a marriage proposal from the emotionless Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis); however, George and his father emerge in England and rent one of Cecil’s empty cottages.  Lucy’s feelings for George, which she has tried desperately to smother, reignite and she breaks off her marriage proposal with Cecil.  Still afraid to succumb to these feelings and confess her love to George, Lucy plans on traveling to Greece with family friends, but on her way out-of-town she runs into George’s father (Denholm Elliott).  As a result of this encounter with Mr. Emerson, Lucy confesses her true feelings, and the film ends with Lucy and George, back in Italy, on honeymoon in their room at the “pensione” with a picturesque view.

What’s significant about Forster’s A Room with a View, which Ivory paid close attention to, is the subtext.  Much of Forster’s meaning occurs between the lines, where it waits for clever readers to discover.  Without Forster’s complex subtext the narrative is significantly less dynamic and less impressive.  Therefore, the film adaptation of A Room with a View had to include the meaning Forster placed between the lines.  For Ivory, this meant communicating the narrative’s subtext on-screen as discreetly as Forster did in the novel.  With Tony Pierce-Roberts, A Room with a View’s cinematographer, much of the subtext of Forster’s novel is brought to the screen for visual readers (a.k.a. moviegoers) to discover for themselves.  Ivory creates dexterous, dense atmosphere consistently in A Room with a View so the camera captures colors, shapes, lines, and clutter, which visually express the understated themes foundational to Forster’s narrative.

Sexual frustration and repressed sexuality are critical themes in A Room with a View, yet these themes are somewhat muted, hiding in the subtext.  Ivory includes this subtext through atmospheric cinematography, specifically the phallic shapes appearing frequently in the film.  For example, at the start to the film, when Lucy is in Italy with her chaperone, Charlotte, the room she eventually secures in the “pensione”—the room with the view—has a few tall standing buildings outside the window, specifically a clock tower to the right.  Shortly after Lucy gazes excitedly from her window’s view, she and George walk through Italy.  They stop to talk between two columns on either side of a large arch.  Framed in the background of the arch is the same clock tower, which is a short distance behind them.  In the shot, as Lucy and George stand talking, the distant structure towers between the two; the clock tower is “the elephant in the room,” representing the longing Lucy and George have for each other.  The placement of this obviously phallic symbol in the shot allows Ivory to create cinematic subtext aligned with Forster’s.

This clock tower reemerges in the film’s conclusion.  While on their honeymoon, Lucy and George sit in front of the window in the same room at the “pensione,” and the clock tower stands tall between them once more.  However, as Lucy finishes reading a letter, George leans over and kisses her, and his move obstructs the view of the clock tower.  This blocking removes the most obvious phallic object in the shot, which suggests the sexual frustration and repression is removed.  Figuratively, without the looming clock tower in sight, Lucy and George are no longer oppressed by the sexual restrictions that bound them previously.  Once again, Ivory uses atmospheric cinematography to create meaning in A Room with a View.

Other major themes of Forster’s novel are coming of age and rebellion against tradition. Ivory uses atmospheric cinematography to draw in these themes with greatly ornamented and decorated sets.  Most of the interior sets in the film feel cluttered, which is historically accurate for turn of the century Europe, but always feel a bit suffocating.  Moreover, overly decorated space leaves most of the interior sets darkened, almost always lacking natural light.  This smothered, dim atmosphere enhances the struggle Lucy feels as a young woman trying to understand herself and others.  Also, the atmosphere Ivory captures equates tradition with antiquity.  Most of the elders in Lucy’s life relish in the decorations and ornaments in these sets; however, Lucy seems frustrated with the relic décor.  Lucy (and George too) are often filmed outdoors.  These exterior shots juxtapose strongly with the interior shots and highlight how much more space and freedom is available out of doors.  Through Ivory’s atmospheric cinematography, the interior sets and all their trimmings represent the end of childhood and out-datedness of tradition, significant, yet understated, concepts from Forster’s narrative.

In conclusion, if it seems easy to use atmospheric cinematography to enhance a film’s meaning, think again.  Emphasizing the narrative’s atmosphere too much will distract viewers away from the narrative.  To prevent this from happening, Ivory commands the audience’s attention with an iron fist.  Yes, the film is full of phallic objects in the background (and sometimes forefront), cluttered interior sets, and strong juxtapositions between interior and exterior scenes; however, Ivory always focuses the audience’s attention with medium and close-up shots.  Even though he pays considerable attention to the atmosphere by capturing sets and surroundings, he restricts the audience’s vantage point dramatically during conversations and the delivery of dialogue.  Ivory creates his atmosphere with a refined hand, knowing when to include a color, shape, or object and when to use simpler, uncomplicated shots so the audience can focus on characterization and plot development.  Like Forster’s literary prowess, A Room with a View’s atmospheric cinematography is conscious and discreet when offering the suggestion of meanings the audience may discover within the film.


~ by Kate Bellmore on 08/07/2012.

3 Responses to “A Film with a View: Atmospheric Cinematography and Subtext in A ROOM WITH A VIEW”

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  2. nice picture hehe
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