Visually lush and dramatically poignant, “My House in Umbria” is a superb adaptation of William Trevor’s novella about four strangers who bond in an Italian villa following a terrorist attack. Anchored by Maggie Smith in a radiant performance, this HBO production, world-preemed at Santa Barbara film festival and set to be aired in May, maintains the outlet’s unassailable track record for producing quality fare.
Not that HBO had to look far to assemble its production team. Helmer Richard Loncraine, scribe Hugh Whitemore, and production designer Luciana Arrighi teamed successfully on the cabler’s Emmy-winning “The Gathering Storm.” And their creative synergy shows here; much like “Enchanted April,” the film exquisitely captures the tonic power of the Italian landscape.
Nattily dressed romance writer Emily Delahunty (Smith) and her driver Quinty (Timothy Spall) speed through the Umbrian countryside toward a train station. Boarding the Milan-bound train for her monthly shopping trip, Emily dissects, in fanciful voiceover, the occupants of her compartment: an American couple and their young daughter, a pair of German lovers, and an older British man traveling with his daughter and son-in-law. A brief exchange with the young girl inspires Emily to scribble some lines. Suddenly, the peaceful ambience is shattered in a hail of glass and debris, but the explosion, presented in a stylized and artificial manner, seems almost a figment of Emily’s imagination. It is not.
Emily awakens in a hospital bed, and an Italian inspector (Giancarlo Giannini) explains a bomb exploded in her compartment. Other survivors are the Englishman, known as the General (Ronnie Barker); the young girl, Aimee (Emmy Clarke); and a German, Werner (Benno Furmann). Emily invites the trio to stay at her house in Umbria during their convalescence.
Amid the sprawling countryside, the unlikely foursome forge a makeshift family. As Aimee gradually recovers from shock, she begins to lean on Emily like a mother. Emily, who has longed for a family, delights in playing hostess and den mother; in return, Werner and the General fulfill her long-held dream of planting an English garden. Scenes at the house, shot in a villa on the Tuscany-Umbria border, are intoxicating.
But Emily fears their happiness is to be short-lived when Aimee’s uncle arrives to collect his niece. A frosty and unpleasant entomologist, Thomas Riversmith (Chris Cooper) had never met his sister’s child. Emily arranges a “getting acquainted ” trip to Siena for the group, but it doesn’t go as she had hoped.
Smith, magnificent throughout, especially shines in Emily’s confrontation with Riversmith, her heart breaking as she watches her “family” dissolve. Emily could easily have become caricature, but Smith finds the pathos in the part. Cooper, in a role that couldn’t be more of a shift from his John Laroche in “Adaptation,” does a convincing turn as the cold and clipped Riversmith, and supporting players are equally beyond reproach.
Loncraine and Whitemore’s adaptation, while largely faithful to Trevor’s novella, smartly condenses or elides characters to capture the story’s essence, and the choices strengthen the film. Whereas on the written page Emily’s stream-of- consciousness ramblings can sometimes seem confusing, here, they are reduced to the color-desaturated dream and flashback sequences and a handful of observations delivered in voiceover.
Production is top-notch in every department; more important, lensing, sets and costumes work together seamlessly, as if they were a single fragment of the same cloth. Cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo has captured the exquisite diffused light of the Italian countryside. Arrighi’s production design and Nicoletta Ercole’s costumes deliberately reflect a 1930s-’40s period look, although the drama is set in present day. And composer Claudio Capponi’s music, alternating between moody strings and lighter percussive notes, helps to reflect character and advance action.