Joe Queenan is one of my favorite writers. He is the author of wonderfully amusing essays and books dealing with the subject of film. In his book Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler, he is bold enough to take on the challenge of watching every Merchant Ivory film, back-to-back. At one point late in the narrative, he has this to say:
As I sat there in my reclining chair with my kids lighting matches to my feet, I realized that God had created Merchant and Ivory for only one reason: because otherwise …he concept of death was too terrifying.
Now, I understand that what Queenan is writing is meant to be entertaining, so when I first read this passage, I took it with a grain of salt. After all, I had seen Howard’s End, and found it interesting. The same goes for The Remains of the Day. Heck, I even purchased Gossford Park, I enjoyed it so much. I understand how some moviegoers can find such films pretentious and droll, but I felt that I was above such simple behavior.
With A Room with a View, however, I have finally met my match. How on Earth could this film have been nominated for three Academy Awards? Surely this is a case of the members of the Academy thinking, “well, it certainly looks like art… it must be art.” Granted, the locations are brilliant, Judy Dench is wonderful and the costumes are well above average, but come on. This film feels much more like a night at the theater than a well-crafted film. Only Ismail Merchant and James Ivory could neuter Daniel Day Lewis in this manner.
I understand that many people love these films, and up until now, I thought I was one of them. Unfortunately, it is clear to me now that I am not. I spent the entire evening wishing that I had watched the Jackie Chan movie that is sitting on my shelf to be reviewed, instead of this one. I guess sometimes, I really am a member of those same ignorant movie going masses that often annoy me so.
The audio track is not spectacular, but it is certainly much better than I expected it to be. The first thing that I noticed once I had pushed the “play” button was the surprising bass response. Much of the score is opera or orchestra based, and thankfully, the engineers who worked on this new 5.1 mix understand the importance of excellent bass response to accurately reproducing such instruments. Vocalists are sparklingly clear, strings are breathy, and the whole musical score sounds simply amazing.
Unfortunately, the same engineers that mixed the score mixed the rest of the film’s audio elements as well. At first, I was amazed at the clarity of the dialog during this film. Once I dug a little deeper, however, I realized that the production dialog has almost entirely been replaced with voice-overs. Whether the actors were indoors or outdoors, the dialog remained as clean as if it were recorded in a recording studio… because it was. Other interesting audio quirks include overbearing ambient noise and haphazard use of the surrounds. While some elements are fantastic, others are horrid, and the result is a soundtrack that only serves to prove how good it could have been.
This transfer holds all of the same soft focus glory of a Barbara Walters special. As if a film such as this one needed to be softened even more, the entire film is presented in a smoky haze. Clearly, this was no accident, but it was done for effect. Personally, I would have been even more pleased had the filmmakers added so much smoke that there was no film to view at all.
To be fair, many of the evening interior scenes look quite realistic, as rooms of that era would obviously have been lit by candlelight. These scenes have that wonderful golden glow about them that only candlelight can provide. While Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is the best example of shooting by candlelight ever put to film, this is still a respectable effort to get this little detail just right.
The information on this two disc set could probably have been squeezed onto a single disc, were it not for the value-added connotations that a two disc set carries with it. Having watched the film in its entirety, I was praying that the commentary track would at least hold some interesting filmmaking secrets. Unfortunately, all it really holds is long periods of dead air. One would expect lively conversation when four commentators are involved on a single chat track, but unfortunately, the talent seems to be much more concerned with watching the film than commenting on it.
Also here is a gallery of production stills and a five minute Merchant-Ivory Profile featurette. Furthermore, there are a couple of short interviews with two members of the cast, conducted on the BBC’s version of Live with Regis and Kelly. Additionally, there is a short segment from the same program on the impact of UK films in the USA, which really amounts to a bit about nothing.
The most substantial extra included on this disc is a E.M. Forster Documentary that was filmed by the BBC, and aired during the week of his death in 1970. This is a half hour black and white program that is essentially a eulogy of Forster’s life.
So just to re-cap; the best item contained on this two-disc set (including the film itself) is a black and white BBC documentary that discusses the life of a dead English author. This title is about as dry as the Sahara.
I know that there are a ton of loyal Merchant Ivory fans that are going to be angry with me for this review. I apologize for my actions, but what kind of a reviewer would I be if I wasn’t honest about my feelings? This title threw me for a loop. “Is there something wrong with me?”, I thought. “How can I be the only one that doesn’t get it?”
There are no clear answers to that question. Sometimes, life is hard. When it comes to Kieslowski and Kubrick, I get it. The work of these two jokers, though… it is beyond me.
Special Features List
- Audio Commentary
- Photo Gallery
- Interviews with the Cast
- Merchant-Ivory Profile
- E.M. Forster Documentary