Up at the VillaKristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox. Directed by Philip Haas
Running Time: 115 mins
Last year Tea with Mussolini was a box office hit in Australia. The eccentric expatriate women caught up in the outbreak of World War II provided a gentle and warm story. Up at the Villa is set in the same period in the same city and also revolves around the expatriate community, but this tale is of love and murder.
Philip Hass has been very faithful to W. Somerset Maugham's novella about Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), an English rose, who, on the eve of being engaged to Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), meets American playboy Rowley Flint (Sean Penn) at a dinner hosted by the Princess Alfernando (Anne Bancroft). Penn's attention confuses Mary. She does not love Swift, but that the marriage of convenience will be a social salvation for her. Over the next day there is a one-night stand, a murder and Mary's world is in chaos.
Scott Thomas plays the upper class English heroine to perfection. She starred in The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Richard III. True to form her fine performance in Up at the Villa is haughty and highly-strung. James Fox is almost a parody of English gentility as Sir James, but the character is delicious. Anne Bancroft's career is having a welcome renaissance at the moment. Her Princess is appropriately gossipy, scheming and patrician. Sean Penn puts in a credible performance as the sleazy American playboy. That said, I think he is miscast. His youth, especially in comparison to Scott Thomas, does not help us believe he is as worldly-wise as the character demands.
Haas keeps the pace of the film brisk. The characters are quickly established and then he pushes on with the drama. Like Tea with Mussolini, Up at the Villa was shot entirely on location in Italy. The pictures of Florence come up as well as they should. The costumes are particularly beautiful and the art direction and set design add to the enjoyment.
Somerset Maughan's novella was interested in the demands of love over duty. Should Mary sacrifice a comfortable, upwardly social lifestyle that has no love for a loving relationship without security and tenure? These are questions that do not preoccupy people as much as they once did, but establishing what we really want and making the sacrifices necessary to live a fulfilled life is as important today as was for anyone living in Italy in 1939.
Richard Leonard SJ