| ** 1/2 Stars
Kristin Scott-Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Davies
Directed by Philip Haas
Writing credits: W. Somerset Maugham (novel), Belinda Haas
USA Films * 115 minutes
This weekend, at least 50% of the moviegoing public decided to visit ancient Rome, opting to see GLADIATOR. A few, I'm told unfortunate, souls went to see a rare sight an actress over 40 cast as something other than a dowager or a suburban mom, in I DREAMED OF AFRICA. Both options were more monstrous than I could handle, so I opted for a more civilized, more contemporary part of Italy, and an actress who merely looks over forty, in UP AT THE VILLA, a stylish, retro treatment of a Somerset Maugham novel about expatriates in Florence during the early days of the fascist regime.
This territory was covered last year in Franco Zeffirelli's TEA WITH MUSSOLINI, which might be an interesting companion piece to Philip Haas' adaptation of Maugham's novel. But while Zeffirelli's film focuses on people who live in Florence because of a fondness for art, and on the impact of the fascisti on their lives, UP AT THE VILLA deals with the darker side of human nature, and on the snowballing effects of lies and deceit.
Kristin Scott-Thomas is a crisp and stylish Mary Panton, a penniless young widow being courted by Sir Edgar Smith (James Fox), a much older British bureaucrat about to become the governor of the Bengal province of India. Such a marriage would resolve many of Mary's problems, despite the fact that Smith is a crashing bore, and the kind of stiffed-back Brit for which the term "stiff upper lip" was invented. When Smith departs on business for a few days, Mary encounters the gay British expat Lucky Ledbetter, who tells her, "The thing you ned to know about Florence is it's always been a viper's nest of intrigue and betrayal" a comment that nicely sets up the rest of the film. She is also befriended by Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft), an American who married into royalty a man "so ugly he scared the horses." The princess has dealt with a loveless, but lucrative, marriage by taking lovers adventures which she recounts vividly (and hilariously) to Mary in an afternoon "girl talk" session. One story, about a one-night affair with a young man who was poor and penniless, seems to stand out from the others, with ultimate tragic consequences.
For some strange reason, even while urging Mary to accept Smith's marriage proposal, Princess San Ferdinando arranges for Mary to be escorted home from a party by Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), an arrogant, yet charming, married American with a reputation as a scoundrel. At first seemingly repulsed by Flint's obvious advances, Mary also finds herself drawn to him and his recklessness, and ultimately comes to rely on him for help. To say more would spoil the plot.
UP AT THE VILLA is a strangely detached piece of work as detached as Kristin Scott Thomas' Mary. Scott-Thomas has a face that expresses primly suppressed emotion better than anyone else in the business, but is so reserved, that as in THE ENGLISH PATIENT and THE HORSE WHISPERER, we never buy that her characters feel anything other than confusion and guilt. The performances, while all fine, seem a bit mannered, except Anne Bancroft's princess, a character who IS mannered. Princess San Ferdinando is the best dowager role in years, and Bancroft, looking marvelous and chic in fabulous 1930's hats, is in fine form, virtually screaming "I am a DIVA!" as she prances her way through this role. And speaking of prancing, Derek Jacobi, looking like Edward Mulhare in the old GHOST AND MRS. MUIR television show, has a *ahem* gay old time as the fluttery Ledbetter.
This is a film in which most of the acting is done with facial expressions, and watching the faces of this stable of fine actors is fascinating. However, the fundamental problem with this film is the lack of chemistry between Kristin Scott-Thomas and Sean Penn. We are supposed to believe that theirs is a relationship of fate, of attraction denied until it explodes. However, Penn and Scott-Thomas never catch fire a fatal flaw, for without the this spark, the film's conclusion never seems quite credible. Penn is well familiar with playing caddish wastrels, but seems not quite comfortable in the role of a upper-crust caddish wastrel, even if he is the only actor who can say a line like "I think you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," and not reduce an audience to derisive laughter.
Far better is Scott-Thomas' interaction with Jeremy Davies, as the young refugee violinist Karl, with whom she attempts to re-enact the princess' one-night stand. Davies (last seen in RAVENOUS and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) is a fascinating young actor; a master of accents, who always makes the most of his usually limited screen time. Only when he's on screen does Mary seem truly alive, and her subsequent rejection of him seems somehow false, particularly when Karl's heartfelt, if stilted, devotion is contrasted with Flint's studied seduction techniques.
Making Florence look glorious is like shooting fish in a barrel, but it looks wonderful here. The villa of the title is a sumptuous green and gold marvel, with lush gardens. Even the tennis courts on which the rich and bored play are gorgeous. The cinematography is reminiscent of that of John Seale's in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, and indeed, this film covers much of the same territory, albeit a few decades earlier. Paul Brown's costumes show the best of 1930's fashion, including the kind of completely killer hats that make you want this particular retro fashion to come back, and remind us of just how smashing Anne Bancroft looks in bias-cut satin.
UP AT THE VILLA is a reasonably diverting view for a hot summer afternoon, but seems too cool and distant for the noir-ish suspense this material requires. However, if you can't face Russell Crowe busting heads, this is a way to see a more civilized Italy this summer.
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