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TV Review: 'House in Umbria' a fine evening diversion

Sunday, May 25, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-gazette TV Editor

HBO's "My House in Umbria" begins with a lyrical jaunt through the Italian countryside, takes a right turn into a terrorist bombing and then returns to Utopian perfection at a sun-dappled Italian villa before descending into a boozy stupor.

"My House in Umbria"

When: 9 tonight on HBO.

Starring: Maggie Smith, Chris Cooper

"Umbria" fits no particular film lineage. It's tone is too inconsistent and, ultimately, too dark to be a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production. It has the sheen of an HBO vanity project, but it contains scarcely any profanity, violence or sex. Perhaps it has the feel of a contemporary Merchant-Ivory piece or "Masterpiece Theatre."

Regardless, "Umbria" is a charming, occasionally challenging, late spring diversion from Hugh Whitemore and Richard Loncraine, the writer and director, respectively, of last year's HBO stand-out movie, "The Gathering Storm."

("Umbria" pre-empts "Six Feet Under" tonight; "Six Feet" returns next week for its season finale.)

Based on a novel of the same name by William Trevor, "Umbria" casts Maggie Smith as Emily Delahunty, a steely, well-preserved romance novelist who composes stories in her head about the people she meets in everyday life.

On a routine shopping trip to Milan, Delahunty finds herself on a train, sharing a compartment with strangers, when a bomb explodes, leaving young American Aimee (Emmy Clarke) orphaned. Delahunty invites Aimee, who has gone mute, and the other survivors to recuperate at her villa. An elderly English general (Ronnie Barker) lost his daughter and son-in-law in the blast, and a twentysomething German (Benno Furmann) saw his new girlfriend die.

"I was the only one not to have lost a loved one," Delahunty says, "having none to lose."

Instead, she gains a makeshift family, a fortuitous turn for a lonely woman who, viewers learn, has had a difficult life.

For a brief period, Delahunty is wildly happy, doting on Aimee, playing host to this group of strangers-turned-friends. But the arrival of Aimee's uncle, Thomas Riversmith (Chris Cooper), brings with it an increase in Delahunty's chain smoking and boozing. She begins to numb herself to avoid feeling her happiness crumble when Aimee returns with Riversmith to America.

This turn and the revelations about Delahunty's past remove "Umbria" from the running to be a simple, warm, fuzzy CBS Sunday night movie. "Umbria" grows dark, its plot turns less certain in a way that's almost uncomfortable. It won't appeal to everyone; "Umbria" requires viewers to be willing to have their expectations challenged and, sometimes, confounded.

Director Loncraine depicts Delahunty's narration and speculation about the lives of her guests in black and white. Her brief, revealing flashbacks are featured the same way. It's an effective, surprisingly unpretentious device.

As Delahunty, Smith is a marvel. Equally at ease playing hostess and alcohol-soaked tramp, it's a far more challenging role than, say, educating mop tops in the "Harry Potter" films.

At a January HBO press conference in Hollywood, Smith said her character is full of hope and courage.

"She's been through a lot in life and comes out triumphant in the end," Smith said. "It has to do with hope."

The rest of the cast is up to Smith's level, from newcomer Clarke to old favorites Giancarlo Giannini (as an Italian investigator) and Timothy Spall (as Delahunty's business manager and friend).

Though not edgy in the way most HBO original fare is thought to be, "Umbria" is risky in its own right.

"It is a film that we couldn't make for the studios, the Hollywood studios or any studios anywhere in the world," Loncraine said at HBO's press conference. "HBO is filling an area which is gone for most of the industry. ... There are no fights at the OK Corral. There's no sex in it. It is a film about words and about acting and about passion and emotions. And studio executives don't really like making those films. They're too risky."

"My House in Umbria" is not sexy, not cutting edge; it does not "push the envelope." It tells a simple story about love and hope, sadness and loneliness. In the current coarse pop culture climate, that makes "Umbria" the riskiest type of film of all.


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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