The late Julian Sands had a long and active career. But I’m not alone, at the very mention of his name, in being brought back, with melancholy and reverie, to one particular work: the Merchant Ivory adaptation of EM Forster’s A Room With a View. The film is what brought Sands, and his co-star Helena Bonham Carter, their first fame; the latter was just 18 when she made it. It is adored by many because it is a perfectly made, beautifully acted and pitch-perfect thing altogether, all irradiated by enough of Forster’s irony to spare it the fate of over-earnestness. But more than that, it is adored because – especially if you first saw it, like me, as a teenager – it is the sweetest and most ardent evocation of what we all grapple with as we reach the brink of adulthood: who we really are, what we really want, whom to love, how to be.
I read a lot of Forster, as did my friends, growing up in north Staffordshire in the 1980s – probably, to be fair, as a direct result of the trickle of Merchant Ivory adaptations of his novels. My copy is marked 27 June 1989, in neat schoolgirl handwriting, which must be around the same time as I saw the film, which had come out in 1985; Bonham Carter is only six years older than me.
Reading Forster seems a respectable thing to have done; I have by contrast a slight sense of embarrassment about my love of the film A Room With a View – not because it’s not a great artwork, but because my obsession with it at the time seems all too transparent to me now. Of course I wanted to leave home and convention behind me, as Lucy Honeychurch so hesitatingly – and eventually determinedly – does. I played Beethoven too, and of course I hoped that the profundity of my tragic soul might thus reveal itself, despite (in my case) the unpromising exterior.
More than anything, of course, I secretly wanted to be transfigured in Italy and stand on a hillside of – well, it was barley and poppies in the film, but in Forster’s novel, it was of violets. He wrote: “Violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam.” (In subsequent years I have seen violets growing in profusion in Italy, and I wonder, how could Forster not register their heady, overbearingly sweet scent?) But I digress. The point is that on that hillside, Bonham Carter’s Lucy is kissed passionately and awkwardly (and thus truthfully) by George: that is, by the intensely beautiful Julian Sands. And who wouldn’t want to be kissed on an Italian hillside by an intensely beautiful man?
I remember friends of mine mildly disparaging Sands’s performance as “stiff” at the time. It’s true he has a slightly otherworldly air – appropriate, I would argue, to a young man so at odds with what he finds around him that he draws a huge question mark in his room at the Pensione Bertolini in Florence; who climbs an olive tree to shout to the world of “Truth” and “Beauty” (before the branches crack and he tumbles out of it); who, after that kiss on the hillside, which he rightly understands as momentous, runs back to Florence in a storm, drenched to the skin. Sands’s George is a lost boy who really has burst from another world – that is, another class and politics – into Lucy’s provincial life, which itself, as reflected through the eyes of the refined Cecil Vyse, the man she self-deludingly gets engaged to, is limited and narrow.
But the film isn’t just about Sands and Bonham Carter: it’s such a lovely, gleaming and frequently funny work because it’s a marvellous chamber piece, cast to perfection: Judi Dench as the romantic novelist Eleanor Lavish; Maggie Smith as the passive-aggressive (as we wouldn’t have said then) cousin Charlotte; Rosemary Leach as Lucy’s mother; Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil, Simon Callow as the vicar, Mr Beebe; Denholm Elliott as George’s father. Lucy’s hilarious younger brother, Freddy, is played by Rupert Graves, and many a teenage heart has beat faster for his floppy-haired charms in that performance.
The film, in a small way, has followed me. Not unconnected with having loved the film, as a student I did travel around Italy, with a friend, and wandered around Santa Croce, and gazed at the Arno, and took a trip to the hills above Florence, though without, alas for us, romantic incident. On the morning of my 21st birthday I woke up in a house in rural Tuscany to be given, by a friend, a mixtape containing O mio babbino caro, the soaring, glorious aria from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi that we hear as the film’s opening titles roll.
These days, I recognise with a shock, I’m the age not of Lucy and Freddy and George and Cecil, nor even of Mr Beebe, but of Charlotte Bartlett and Eleanor Lavish (with whom I share a regrettable snobbery about English tourists in Italy, despite frequently being one myself). I’ve met Callow over the years, which would have thoroughly surprised the 1980s me; as would the fact that I quite frequently see Graves, who must live in my neighbourhood in London, whizzing past on his bike. Every time I see him I smile and think of A Room With a View, and of my younger self.
As for Bonham Carter, before embarking on an interview with her in 2019, I couldn’t help telling her about my love of A Room With a View. “Ah well,” she said. “That was a very long time ago.” She’s right. It was. Watching the film again now, you feel how young they were, her and Julian Sands. How young, how tender, how beautiful, how perfect.