Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Up at the Villa (2000) **

Directed by Philip Haas. Edited by and written by Belinda Haas, based on the novella by W. Somerset Maugham. Photography, Maurizio Calvesi. Production design, Paul Brown. Music, Pino Donaggio. Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas (Mary Panton), Sean Penn (Rowley Flint), Anne Bancroft (Princess San Ferdinando), James Fox (Sir Edgar Swift), Jeremy Davies (Karl Richter), Derek Jacobi (Lucky Leadbetter), Massimo Ghini (Beppino Leopardi). Produced by Geoff Stier. An October/Intermedia production, released by USA Films. 115 minutes. PG-13 (sex)

Playwright, novelist, short story writer W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was in his lifetime as known and as read an English-language author as anyone, especially for his short stories. Crisp, unfussy writing, a cosmopolitan life, and sharp observation led to a host of movie adaptations --over 50 -- from "Rain" (made four times) to "The Razor's Edge" (made twice) to autobiographical spy thrillers, to international manners and/or intrigue, to the British at home or abroad.

"Abroad", for affluent Americans and for Brits who could afford it, more often than not meant "Italy." In 1940 Maugham published the novella which this film adapts. That was during the first year of World War II which began in September 1939. The story tells mostly of British expatriates in Italy, with a light seasoning of Americans. Its background included the Fascist Mussolini regimes. but this aspect was attenuated. It is underlined and expanded in the movie version which starts after September 1938, that is, after the infamous Munich agreements were signed by Hitler, Mussolini, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French PM Edouard Daladier.

There's no more blind a person that the one who does not want to see, goes a saying. The depicted English in Italy were among those who, whether because of delusion, inertia or stupidity did no return home to the British Isles, but instead took Chamberlain's foolish "Peace in our time" at face value.

The movie's little colony in and around Florence (where the film was shot, as well as partly in Siena), go through their small, effete, even stultifying social life.

The picture's center is Mary Panton, about 40. A widow with no palpable funds, she is staying at a villa loaned her by friends. Her confidente (in some ways) is the colorful, cynical, flamboyant doyenne (in rank and fortune) of the colony, also a widow, the English Principessa San Ferdinando, played with the gusto that Anne Bancroft can command so effortlessly. I am not sure whether the Princess is a Brit or an American. Her accent sounds like stage English, reinforced by her repeated addressing Mary as "duckey."

The other Brits are by and large pallid, dull types, with the exception is Lucky Leadbetter, a gay and indigent artist (Derek Jacobi) who is also queenishly flamboyant, but merely on the fringes of the local high society. His presence is really not needed in the story. It is something of a conundrum. I read Maugham's novella ages ago, could not find a copy in a hurry, so that I don't know whether this character was in the source text or was added in the script

At one of the regular, society dinners, American newcomer Rowley Flint meets Mary. He is a playboy whose wife is not around. It looks as if that all spouses,whether dead or alive, were or are negative entities. Flint immediately starts his seduction number on Mrs. Panton. But, though attracted to him, she is hesitant. Having been left fortune-less, she is considering a match with Sir Edward Swift, a civil servant who is 25 years older than she, properly proper --in fact almost comically so,-- in love with Mary, an old friend forever, and a candidate for Governor of Bengal. (It was unclear to me whether he is a widower or an old bachelor).

He proposes. She needs a few days to think it over. He leaves for a short time -- during which Mary a) rebuffs Flint's advances and b) meets again by chance Karl Richter, a young (and overly grungy, unkempt and gauche) refugee from Austria. Frustratingly, we never learn why he is a refugee? Is he anti-Nazi? Is he a Jew? Why has he not a Teutonic accent, even a mild one?

Mary, for reasons unclear and somewhat improbable --libido? pity? a passing fancy? -- has sex with the awkward youth in "her" bedroom at the beautiful villa. The next day madly amorous Karl shows up, is politely informed by Mary that "basta is basta," and it was only a one-night stand. His reaction is as unforeseen as it is radical. Major things happen which now throw Mary into the company of Rowley Flint who helps her and.....

This film is heavy on accents and dialogues. The clearest English accent belong to Italian performer Massimo Ghini who plays the local political top dog, as Secretary of Florence's Fascist Party. He too desires Mary, which complicates matters.

The movie loves local Italian color, meaning interiors, architecture and nature. It also loves to talk. There is much stress on lovingly elaborated Tuscan details--which please the eye but slow down the action.

No true three-dimensional characters rise up. The improbable casting of Bad Boy Penn as a man of the world, a classy womanizer, is hard to swallow,both in part and in whole. If you reflect on the fact that Penn's was once married to Madonna, his sophistication becomes even less likely. The electricity between him and Scott Thomas is about like that of two AAA batteries.

Ms. Scott Thomas is not particularly appealing in any sense of the word. What a pity! After the full or part failure of her last two films ("Random Hearts" and "The Horse Whisperer") she deserved a better role. She is a very special case. Her filmography is far larger than most viewers suspect, but it is also obscure, in that the majority of her films (mostly European) have not been released in the USA. I first saw her in the Rumanian "An Unforgettable Summer" (1994, by Lucian Pintillie), a gem where she gives a four-star performance. Get it if you can. Or else the interesting "Angels and Insects" (1995) by the same husband and wife team that made "Up at the Villa." "Le mauvais gout mene au crime"(Stendhal)

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel