Nobody plays eccentrics better than Maggie Smith. She was hilarious as the uptight kind in “Gosford Park,” and she is touching as the lonely kind in “My House in Umbria,” an HBO movie premiering Sunday night at 9.
The film, which has the polish and leisurely lyricism of a Hallmark Hall of Fame production rather than the snappy grit of some HBO works, follows a group of travelers in Italy who find solace and friendship in a rural villa when they are thrown together in the wake of a terrorist attack. Based on William Trevor’s novella, “My House in Umbria” was directed by Richard Loncraine and written by Hugh Whitemore, the team behind HBO’s Winston Churchill film “The Gathering Storm.”
Smith stars as Emily Delahunty, a romance novelist enjoying a train trip to Milan when a mysterious explosion rips through her compartment, killing several riders and injuring the others. When the authorities tell the survivors to stay in the country pending the investigation, Emily offers her home to the three other injured victims: a retired English general (Ronnie Barker); a German photographer (Benno Furmann); and Aimee, an 8-year-old American girl orphaned in the blast (Emmy Clarke).
Surrounded by lush scenery -- the “healing balm of the landscape,” as Emily calls it in her effusive way -- the group forms an unexpected bond while convalescing. But the peace is upset by the arrival of the girl’s staid uncle, entomology professor Thomas Riversmith (Chris Cooper), along with unsettling suspicions about the explosion’s origins raised by an Italian investigator (Giancarlo Giannini).
Emily, who as a surrogate mother has grown especially close to Aimee, fears that the girl will suffer in the care of her American uncle, who is obsessed with red ants but oblivious to all else. Their confrontation over the girl’s custody is far more compelling than the increasingly obvious “mystery” of the train attack.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Emily remarked in voice-over, “I was the only one who had not lost a loved one, having none to lose.” But all that has changed.