Friday May 5, 2000
"Up at the Villa" is the knockoff version of a quality film. With a beautiful period look and the presence of gifted actors Sean Penn and Kristin Scott Thomas, it resembles the real thing, but a closer examination reveals that the construction is suspect and the seams won't hold.
The filmmaking team of director Philip Haas and writer-editor Belinda Haas has at least a visual gift for the past. Their earlier "Angels and Insects," taken from a work by Angela Byatt, created a striking Victorian ambience. "Villa," adapted from a Somerset Maugham novella, uses production and costume designer Paul Brown and cinematographer Maurizio Calvesi to decoratively re-create the environs of 1938 Florence, a "second-rate provincial town" struggling to maintain its equilibrium as Mussolini's Fascists are consolidating their power.
But, even more than that earlier film, "Villa" is not dramatically convincing. The melodrama of the Maugham original is too simplistic to involve, and the places the film's plot goes are so obvious that even the presence of quality actors can't create sufficient interest.
Scott Thomas, who also starred in "Angels and Insects," brings her usual beauty and intelligence to the part of Mary Panton, an impoverished young widow bone weary of being dependent on the kindness of strangers even if their generosity includes the loan of the Florentine villa she is staying in.
Her days of being as poor as a church mouse, however, may soon be over. An old friend, Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), the stiffest upper lip in war-torn Europe, cares about her enough to think about proposing marriage. And Sir Edgar's new job as governor of Bengal in British India, is posh enough to keep Mary up to her elegant cheekbones in servants.
Taking a nosy interest in Mary's future is the Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft), an aging American fortune hunter who married shrewdly and well and who is anxious that the young woman do the same. "I hope you're not one of those who has to be in love to marry," the princess huffs, telling Mary about her many lovers, including an impoverished man she took on because she wanted to bring something beautiful into his humdrum life.
It's the princess who introduces Mary to American Rowley Flint (Penn), the smooth, cocky and, you guessed it, married playboy of the Tuscan world. They flirt beautifully, but because Mary's past has led her to look on love as a source of humiliation while Rowley lives only to "find someone who makes every nerve in your body snap," their relationship does not seem to have much of a future.
But wait. Mary gets distracted by a penniless young refugee named Karl (Jeremy Davies) while all non-Italians come under the scrutiny of local Fascist leader Beppino Leopardi (Massimo Ghini), shiny boots and all, and the film's already contrived doings take a more sinister but even less creditable turn.
Penn is an exceptional actor whose choices, though invariably interesting and unexpected, are not always successful. Here he seems to have modeled himself after Robert Mitchum, turning Rowley Flint into a monument to suavity who raises his eyebrows like a man of the world and insists, "I don't make set plans."
It's a polished but disconnected performance, with the feeling of a stunt about it, and it adds to an air of unreality in a movie where people are forever exclaiming "I say" and "by Jove." Penn and Scott Thomas do have a certain physical chemistry, but it's not enough to cancel out plot dynamics so old they creak. Beauty and bloodlessness battle it out in every frame of "Villa," and no one comes out a winner.
Up at the Villa, 2000. PG-13 for thematic elements. October Films and Intermedia Films present a Mirage/Stanley Buchthal production, released by USA Films. Director Philip Haas. Producers Geoff Stier. Executive producers Sydney Pollack, Arnon Milchan, Stanley Buchthal. Screenplay Belinda Haas, based on the novella by W. Somerset Maugham. Cinematographer Maurizio Calvesi. Editor Belinda Haas. Costumes Paul Brown. Music Pino Donaggio. Production design Paul Brown. Art directors Livia Borgognoni, Anna Deamer. Set decorator Gianfranco Fumagalli. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Kristin Scott Thomas as Mary Panton. Sean Penn as Rowley Flint. Anne Bancroft as Princess San Ferdinando. James Fox as Sir Edgar Swift. Jeremy Davies as Karl Richter. Derek Jacobi as Lucky Leadbetter. Massimo Ghini as Beppino Leopardi.