A decent period drama that occasionally rises above the reliable, “Up at the Villa” is an intelligent version of Somerset Maugham’s 1941 novella set among a bunch of idle Anglo-Americans as war approaches in fascist Italy. Largely cast with thesps who can pull off this kind of thing in their sleep, pic is notable for a surprisingly effective perf by Sean Penn, who more than holds his own against seasoned period players. As a whole, however, the film lacks the dramatic clout and production sheen to make much B.O. impact, signaling a molto tranquillo theatrical career.
Shot almost two years ago in Florence and Siena, “Villa” is the most straightforward of helmer Philip Haas’ three features to date, with none of the intellectual cleverness of “The Music of Chance” or social analysis of “Angels and Insects.” But what he and scripter Belinda Haas have ditched in artifice and commentary they have more than made up for in dramatic construction. This least affected of their movies is also the most dramatically and emotionally convincing.
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Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a penniless, widowed Brit socialite in 1938 Florence who still bears the scars of her unhappy marriage. Encamped in the hilltop villa of some absent friends, she is courted by the much older Sir Edgar (James Fox on autopilot), a careerist diplomat who offers her a life of comfort and standing in his upcoming posting to India.
Mary has known him since she was young. Though not sure if she loves him, she’s tempted to accept his offer for the sake of security. She asks for a couple of days to think it over, but while Edgar scoots off to finalize some business, her whole life is turned around.
At a dinner thrown by an American socialite known as the Princess (Anne Bancroft), she’s paired with Rowley Flint (Penn), a buccaneering, handsome American who both intrigues and repels her. During a stopover on her way home, the pair spar lightly and separate angrily; and then, driving alone back to her villa, Mary almost runs over a sallow young man, Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies, in an OK turn), who played violin during the dinner.
Taking pity on him, she invites him back for a meal, during which she learns that he’s a destitute refugee from Austria. On an impulse she sleeps with him and when he departs the next morning, both parties seem to agree that it was a one-night stand. Trouble starts, however, when Karl suddenly turns up the next night, declares his love for her (in the pic’s least convincing scene) and then shoots himself when she rejects him. Rowley helps to dispose of the body and all seems secure again — until the local Fascist party chief, Leopardi (Massimo Ghini), starts getting curious.
A similar backdrop was recently traversed by Franco Zeffirelli’s “Tea With Mussolini,” to mixed results, and at times, “Up at the Villa” plays like a chamber version of that movie, briefly sketching the milieu of snooty Anglophones becoming increasingly circumscribed by changing political events.
“Villa” is a far more focused work, with a smaller cast of players, but it often shows the slimness of its source material when it tries to step outside Maugham’s original. The two main inventions for the movie — Leopardi and an effete Brit, Lucky Leadbetter (Derek Jacobi) — never really take shape as full characters. The former is a plot device to bring some added tension to the second half, the latter pure decoration.
Pic’s at its best in scenes involving Scott Thomas, Penn and Bancroft, each of whom etches a believable personality within the slightly heightened period atmosphere. Bancroft eats up the role of the Princess with one after another flamboyant gesture, with a touch of malice that adds edge to the part. Scott Thomas, looking as cool and radiant as ever, is strangely less secure with some of the dialogue, occasionally collapsing into a twittering girlishness that chimes ill with the generally poised character. Still, she handles her big speeches — especially a nocturnal monologue to Penn — with style.
Penn, in a role that would have been played by Humphrey Bogart to Lauren Bacall’s Mary if Warners had made the pic in the ’40s, is confident without appearing cocky, acting much older than he looks, and with impressive restraint. Physically, he’s a long way from the Rowley of the novella — an unstriking, rather dissipated Brit — but catches the dangerous appeal that propels Mary’s fascination.
Technically, the movie looks OK on a budget that seems a few bucks short of the subject matter and in print caught sometimes looked less than attractive in non-daylight scenes. Pino Donaggio’s orchestral score is generally a help in adding emotional underpinning.