The film is based upon the novel A Room with a View by E.M. Forster and stars Maggie Smith (Charlotte Bartlett), Helena Bonham Carter (Lucy Honeychurch), Denholm Elliott (Mr. Emerson), Julian Sands (George Emerson), Simon Callow (Mr. Beebe), Judi Dench (Miss Eleanor Lavish), Daniel Day-Lewis (Cecil Vyse), and Rupert Graves (Freddy Honeychurch).
The film is a close adaptation of Forster's novel (but for its unequivocally happy ending), and even uses his chapter titles to divide the film into sections.
The premise of the story centers on the development of Miss Lucy Honeychurch. We first encounter Lucy as she is on holiday in Italy with her chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett. Both Lucy and Charlotte are conventionally English in contrast with the more free-thinking and free-spirited backdrop of Italy. It is at a small pensione in Italy that Lucy meets elderly Mr. Emerson and his handsome son, George. These men, although English, represent the forward-thinking ideals of the turn-of-the-century. They are the living embodiment of change, seeking to leave behind the repression and caution that was the norm in Victorian times. At first, the two Emerson men seem strange and unfamiliar to Lucy and Charlotte. However, as Lucy begins her journey to maturity and selfhood, she finds herself drawn to the men, especially the handsome George.
In an unguarded moment, George embraces and passionately kisses Lucy as she approaches him to ask a question. The scene takes place in a rural barley field, but is seen by chaperone Charlotte and quickly stopped. George's lust and unrestrained passion shocks Lucy, but lights a secret desire and romance in her heart for the handsome young man.
Upon returning to England, Lucy forgets her passionate kiss and brief friendship with George Emerson. She accepts a marriage proposal from an uptight, emotionally impotent, arrogant man named Cecil Vyse. Assuming that she will never see George Emerson again, Lucy moves forward with Cecil. However, she soon learns that both George and his father have moved to her small village and will be neighbours in her community.
At first, Lucy seems happy and pleased to make an engagement with Cecil, who is a respected and wealthy man. They both seem destined to follow a path of doing what is expected of them, reacting in a dispassionate way to life, and never experiencing any fluctuations of emotions. Lucy's innocence and desire to be the perfect young English lady suggest that she would prefer Cecil's safety and stability. Her passionate piano playing suggests that deeper emotions lie beneath the surface of Lucy's cool, calm exterior. The appearance of George Emerson soon disrupts her plans and forces her to make a choice between the dull, dry security she would find with Cecil or the wild uncertainty she would have with George.
After a period of living in Lucy's small village, the Emerson men decide that they do not fit in with the locals. The two men make plans to move out of their home, and find a more open-minded place to live. Lucy has already broken her ties to Cecil, and wants to travel for a while. She yearns to separate herself from the antics of her brother, Freddy, as well as the sweet-yet-tiresome older neighbors (including Charlotte Bartlett and Lucy's own mother). Just as she is about to leave Windy Corner to set out on an independent adventure, she reunites with George Emerson; they elope to Florence.