Up at the Villa

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Philip Haas; screenplay by Belinda Haas, based on a novella by W. Somerset Maugham.
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox and Jeremy Davies

Rated PG-13; 115 minutes (2000)

W. Somerset Maugham was a fairly major cultural/literary figure of the first half of the 20th century, but he's certainly not a household name at the dawn of the 21st. Still, his virtues as a storyteller - sharply drawn and contrasted characters, along with a fairly adult attitude about sexual passion and the ways it can wreck "respectable" people's lives - would seem to be timeless.

His fiction has already inspired numerous films, with the best-known being the melodramatic but still powerful Of Human Bondage (Bette Davis' breakthrough role, in 1934); The Letter (Bette again, now a full-fledged star in 1942); and the unintentionally goofy but still enjoyable The Razor's Edge, in 1946. (I never saw the 1984 Bill Murray remake, but it couldn't have been much sillier than Tyrone Power achieving spiritual enlightenment atop a mountain in Tibet without unslicking a single hair.)

But to film a Maugham story like Up at the Villa today is a tall order. His plotting and dialogue, which can creak at the best of times, are two major obstacles. Another problem is that Villa's basic storylines - repressed British woman succumbs to the beauty and sensuality of Italy, and Anglo-American expatriate community is threatened by the rise of Fascism - have both been memorably filmed (Room With a View and Tea With Mussolini, respectively).

Director Philip Haas is unfortunately not up to the task of surmounting these obstacles. He and screenwriter Belinda Haas have rethought Maugham's story - but as a Northern Italy travelogue, with a Lifetime movie-of-the-week sometimes obscuring our view of the beautiful sights. The villa of the title, for instance, contains a garden that's gorgeous by sunlight and mysterious in the moonlight. The region's sculpture and architectural treasures also get a good showcase. Villa was shot on location in Florence and Siena; it may also have been financed by those cities' tourism boards.

Oh, you want to know about the plot? It's 1938. Nearly penniless but pretty British widow Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas) is staying in the titular villa on the generosity of friends (why don't I have friends like that?). She receives a marriage proposal from Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), a rich older man about to get a prominent position in the ruling British Raj in India. Swift conveniently leaves for a few days without getting a definite answer from Mary; he lends her his gun for her personal protection.

At a party Mary meets flirtatious married man Rowley Flint (Sean Penn). He propositions her, so, like the respectable British woman she is, she slaps his face. That same night, Mary has what she thinks will be a one-night fling with skinny teenaged Austrian refugee Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies). She's acting more out of pity and kindness than love or passion, but Karl doesn't know that, and he shows up the next night expecting more lovin'.

Enough plot? We're only halfway through, and there's still gunplay, blackmail, the Gathering Storm of Fascism and even the Fate of the British Empire left to go.

The actors do what they can. Thomas, who handles the difficult technical demands of her role efficiently if not thrillingly, would probably have more luck if she weren't costumed and lit to look like a particularly attractive part of the décor rather than the star of the movie. Her gowns and tailored suits, in a variety of pale blues and creams, are so coordinated with the artwork and the compositions that I ended up paying more attention to them than to her face or what she was saying. It doesn't help her efforts that the costume designer and the production designer are one and the same person (Paul Brown).

Sean Penn achieves a small triumph in that he doesn't seem totally ridiculous as a romantic leading man. Anne Bancroft has a lot of fun as a rich, gossipy bitch who serves as both comic relief and plot contrivance. Her line readings are as crisp and well-shaped as her marcelled hairdos. Excellent British actor Derek Jacobi is wasted in a small role.

Jeremy Davies (the cowardly translator from Saving Private Ryan) proves again that he is a remarkable young actor, managing to be both intense and restrained at the same time. His scenes are among the most melodramatic in the film but he almost manages to make them believable, and he even strikes a few sparks off of the chilly Thomas.

(This article originally appeared in Films in Review, www.filmsinreview.com)

Film | Theater | Books  | Home Entertainment | Feature Article | Contact
Grin without a Cat (adamblairviews.com) is wholly owned by Adam Blair
All content Copyright 2004 Adam Blair. All Rights Reserved.
Site Design: C2K Multimedia