At first glance, Up at the Villa seems all too similar to a film such as Tea With Mussolini. In both, a gaggle of upper-class twits (primarily pompous Brits and nouveau riche Americans) insist on maintaining their aesthetically pleasing expatriate life in sunny Italy during the 1930s, despite the fascist country viewing them increasingly as enemies.
In adapting W. Somerset Maugham’s novella, screenwriter-editor Belinda Haas and director Philip Haas (the couple collaborated with much less distinction on three other films, including Angels and Insects) have fashioned an engrossing tale about accepting individual responsibility during a time when most were swept along by great political upheavals.
The ex-pat social circle in Florence is dominated by a queen bee, Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft). She enjoys ruling her unruly brood and has taken a particular interest in Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), an English widow left destitute by an errant husband and reliant on the kindness of near-strangers.
While Mary considers the marriage proposal of Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), a very stiff-upper-lip British civil servant, the princess puts her in the path of a roguish American, Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), with most unexpected results.
Despite some distinguishing elements (Philip Haas paints Florence as a city of intrigue, where the classically beautiful facade cloaks a menacing undertow), Up at the Villa remains too genteel to have the emotional impact it strives for.
What sets the film apart are the truly superb performances, particularly the hair-trigger mood swings of a jittery Jeremy Davies (playing an Austrian refugee whom Mary takes under her wing) and a surprisingly composed Sean Penn. Stripped of his usual mannerisms, Penn exudes a new self-confidence and translates quiet self-knowledge into an on-screen magnetism that few of his contemporaries can muster.
Kristin Scott Thomas, who specializes in portraying cool and icy Brits, brings a welcome urgency to Mary. Her natural reserve means that the life-altering events of Up at the Villa turn out to be grand passion played in a minor key.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.