Note to self: Do not travel back in time to the 20th century. Or to be more accurate, to early 20th-century England. We’ve been conditioned to think it was all hot scones and tennis on the lawn, but after a closer viewing of historical facts I have learned that only a certain segment of the populace could enjoy such privileges. And even they had problems.
Reopening windows onto these problems are two films from the 1980s, digitally remastered to 21st-century standards. And each offers thoughts to munch on that are way more substantial than afternoon tea.
“A Room With a View” (1985) was one of the first batch of Merchant Ivory Productions films to reach Japan, and many women’s fashion magazines swooned over the elegant clothes, aristocratic lifestyle and the rarefied, English-rose beauty of lead actress Helena Bonham Carter. She plays Lucy Honeychurch, the sheltered, proper daughter of a typical Edwardian-era middle-class family in Surrey. But under the prim and proper facade, Lucy harbors a passion she herself hardly knows about. When she plays the piano for her parents’ prim and proper guests, this passion surfaces and gives everyone a good jolt.
Lucy, however, remains a product of her social class, though the story makes frequent prods to get her to think for herself and take control.
“A Room With a View” was adapted from an E.M. Forster novel and the man is ripplingly famous for testing the mental and spiritual capacities of his stiff, privileged characters, often with unhappy results. See (or read) “A Passage to India” for an example of a perfectly respectable woman who is prodded around by Forster’s machinations and gets her knickers in an awful twist. Most of Forster’s works are a veiled indictment of the British Empire ruled by the British aristocracy, both of which he draws as rotting from the core and doomed to tragedy.
The same motifs manifest as a gem of breathtaking visuals and languid, nuanced moments in the hands of director James Ivory. “A Room With a View” is simply beautiful to behold, especially when Lucy departs for a Florentine vacation chaperoned by her spinster cousin Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). Their all-too proper holiday is (wonderfully) turned on its head by the father-son combo of Mr. Emerson and George (Denholm Elliot and Julian Sands), as these gentlemen offer the ladies a good, long look out from the window of real life, glorious with passion and fraught with unpredictability. Whether Lucy has the freedom of spirit to absorb some valuable life lessons, however, is another story.
Another Country” (1984) also has strong anti-class-system sentiments at its core, but it’s more flagrant than “A Room With a View” and is grounded in a sociopolitical context. Originally a play, “Another Country” is based on the real-life story of the so-called Cambridge Spy Ring. This was a select group of elite, Cambridge-educated British agents who leaked state secrets to the Soviet Union from World War II into the 1950s, many of whom later defected to the USSR.
Guy Burgess (renamed Guy Bennett in the movie and played by a young, gorgeous Rupert Everett) was the ringleader and the story, helmed by Marek Kanievska, portrays him as a brooding, seething rebel with a very personal cause. It picks out the seeds of discontent in Guy’s repressed but privileged life that later triggered his infamous career as a double.
As such, the movie feels like an open letter of accusation, particularly against the English public-school system. Guy is an Eton lad with no illusions about his homosexuality. His love for his fellow classmates at first complements his love for the power he attains by rising to head prefect. But he soon learns that love is a hindrance to his classroom ambitions, especially as he falls seriously in love with James Harcourt (Cary Elwes).
Guy’s roommate, Tommy (Colin Firth — so young, so … rad!), on the other hand, is a Marxist with eyes opened wide to the corruptions of the class system. Their discussions foster a fierce conviction of being outsiders, destined to feel suffocation and alienation for as long as they remain in England.
The story unfolds with chilling depictions of the rampant hypocrisy and bullying at Eton. Early on, the headmaster finds two boys having sex and one of them (Philip Dupuy) hangs himself rather than face the stigma and subsequent torture from the older boys. The teachers and prefects all scramble to cover up the suicide and keep the details a secret from the parents, though most of the boys’ fathers (themselves once Eton students) have gone through similar experiences anyway. The stench of ridiculous pretension sends Tommy and Guy into a spiral of self-loathing that no doubt enables the bad decisions they are to make in later life.
The aristocrat in British cinema has become what the samurai is to the Japanese movies. There are downsides, but the concept sure does sell.