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
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)