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'Up at the Villa'

Down on the 'Villa': Acting never matches warmth of setting in 'Up at the Villa'

Friday, May 26, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Although "Up at the Villa" is, ostensibly, about passion, impulse, intrigue, suicide, desperation and blackmail, it's the movie equivalent of a block of marble.

'Up At The Villa'

RATING: PG-13 for brief sex, violence

STARRING: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn

DIRECTOR: Philip Haas

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 stars


It's cold and hard and strangely unemotional, given its setting of sunny Florence and Tuscany in the disquieting period before World War II. Its themes seem buried beneath the surface, and this screenplay doesn't chisel deep enough to expose or shape them.

Writer Belinda Haas, wife of director Philip Haas, has spun a 1940 W. Somerset Maugham novella into a two-hour movie starring Kristin Scott Thomas as Mary Panton, a beautiful, penniless English widow unhappily depending on the kindness of others. She is staying in an opulent villa, courtesy of friends, and makes the rounds of parties where the guests (all twice her age) speculate on her plans.

They wonder, correctly, if Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox) will ask Mary to marry him. He's 20 years her senior, a reserved British diplomat about to be appointed governor of Bengal and a man who seems to promise a secure if passionless future.

Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft), a gossipy grand dame, says to Mary, "I hope you're not one who has to be in love." The princess married a man who was "so ugly he frightened the horses" but he was rich, titled and Italian. She had no problem with taking lovers and recommends Mary do the same.

Encounters with two men -- one an Austrian refugee (Jeremy Davies), the other a wealthy, married American playboy (Sean Penn) -- soon change everything. An impulsive act of kindness is misinterpreted and leads to tragedy, at which point the rogue is summoned. Mary's seemingly predictable life is suddenly not so predictable.

The most seductive thing about "Up at the Villa" is Italy, with its ancient architecture and artwork, landscaped gardens, towering cypresses, lemon trees and rows of ripening tomatoes. The warmth of the scenery, decorations and costumes contrasts with the emotions portrayed on screen.

With the exception of Bancroft and, to a lesser extent, Davies (the terrified translator in "Saving Private Ryan"), everyone seems to have ratcheted down their energy levels. That is especially true of Penn, who seems to be speaking in a deep monotone.

Mary must do something that seems out of character and then proceeds to create unnecessary complications. Why go to great lengths to conceal an action, only to share the details later?

"Up at the Villa" makes a point of mentioning the danger that lurks in Florence in 1938. Edgar reminds Mary that penniless refugees are crossing the border to escape the Nazis and hungry workmen are roaming the countryside. The Fascists are trying to impose restrictions on outsiders, but a widespread sense of peril is never created; if it were, the stakes would seem higher all around.

This is no "Tea With Mussolini," set in Florence in the late 1930s but focusing on an eccentric colony of elderly English and extraordinary American women. Even if that was a cheery interpretation of the war, it was a full-bodied one.

The villa is a lovely place to visit, but you don't really get a sense of the people who live there.

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