Up At The Villa

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Movie Review by Louise Charman

Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft

Director: Philip Haas

Beautiful, English and vulnerable – it has to be Kristin Scott-Thomas. Add the beauty of the Italian countryside and the long shadows of war, and you have a scenario not dissimilar to that of THE ENGLISH PATIENT. However UP AT THE VILLA, an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novella set in 1940?s Italy, is not quite on a par with that Oscar winning epic. A tale of romance and danger, it reveals a personal crisis in the life of one woman, as the rise of Fascism threatens a group of Anglo-American ex-pats in 1940?s Tuscany.

Scott-Thomas plays Mary Panton, a penniless English widow who is staying in a villa near Florence courtesy of her socialite friend Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft). Aware that she needs a husband to provide for her, Mary is considering the proposal of Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), an old family friend 25 years her senior. Mary?s feelings for him are more of respect than love, but she is fully aware that such an attachment could bring her a life of comfort and prestige. The Princess encourages her to accept his proposal, adding that she can always take a lover as she herself had secretly done in her own marriage.

At a dinner party hosted by the Princess despite the ever lengthening shadow of war, Mary meets the charming but married Rowley Flint (Sean Penn). He provokes her by questioning how she can consider a loveless marriage, quoting his own as evidence of failure. Piqued, she storms off and encounters Austrian refugee Karl, who had earlier awakened her pity when he played the violin rather badly at the party. In a well intended but ultimately patronising gesture, she takes him to her bed to bestow a moment of pleasure on his hunted and barren existence. When Karl returns the following night a confrontation ensues in which he dies and a horrified Mary calls upon Rowley to help her. Mary becomes increasingly entangled in a web of deceit until she finally decides to take responsibility for her own behaviour.

UP AT THE VILLA is not a remarkable film, the setting familiar to us from the glut of period films set in Italy, the romance between English rose and American playboy somewhat predictable. What is most engaging is the portrayal of Mary, a woman who progresses from naivety to self knowledge at a time when women were still very much dependent on men (and consequently their own reputation) for their survival. Kristin Scott-Thomas manages to maintain Mary?s appeal even when her own whim leads to an innocent man?s death. Her understated confession to Rowley about her liaison with Karl is one of the best moments in the film, and her decision to face the truth – and an uncertain future – make her a woman ahead of her time.

In an enjoyable but undemanding role as the charming Rowley Flint, Sean Penn?s biggest stretch is for another cigarette. Anne Bancroft?s talents are used to good effect as the dissipated Princess, keeping up appearances while the rot sets in underneath. Derek Jacobi is amusing but extraneous as the eccentric, impoverished Lucky Leadbetter, and Massimo Ghini?s performance as the Fascist Italian officer is as smooth as his well-oiled hair. James Fox is – well, James Fox.

Although unlikely to garner any Oscars, the latest creation of director Philip Haas and screenwriter wife Belinda will – at the very least – have you reaching for the holiday brochures.

4 out of 6 stars