Miss Lucy Honeychurch (an amazingly young Helena Bonham Carter) is in Florence with her maiden aunt and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith, also much younger than I think of her now, although 30 years older than Bonham Carter). They are proper British citizens, and Charlotte in particular is unimpressed by their fellow residents the Emersons (the father is played by Denholm Elliott, the son by Julian Sands), who are kind-hearted but most uncivilized. And yet Lucy finds herself drawn to George (the son). But we soon find her back in England, engaged to the fairly intelligent but snobbish Cecil Vyse (played by Daniel Day-Lewis).
For those not familiar with the phrase "Merchant Ivory," James Ivory was a movie director and Ismail Merchant was the producer. Their partnership lasted 44 years and produced something like 30 films, with this one being in the middle of their run and possibly the best of the lot.
Something about Bonham Carter's acting put me off slightly. She's good, but I still felt she was a little off - although not enough to significantly detract from a very enjoyable movie. The cast represented the very best Britain had available (and that's saying something), with Smith, Elliott, Simon Callow and Judi Dench, and then the up-and-coming crowd of Bonham Carter, Day-Lewis, and Rupert Graves. I was particularly fond of Callow, who made Mr. Beebe an incredibly charming, laid-back and funny Reverend. Graves was also notably good (and incredibly young) as Lucy's madcap younger brother Freddy. The movie also left me curious about what happened to Sands: he was quite good in this movie, but currently has a lower profile than many of the other actors in this film. Turns out he's still working, often in TV and in smaller roles.
The movie centres around Lucy's rather slow and somewhat rocky journey from the excessively restrained Victorian values represented by her aunt Charlotte to a more open and less emotionally corseted view of life - a hybrid of her mother's relatively open views and the Emerson's very positive world-view. Low key and upbeat, it's a pleasure to watch.