Dated as it is, the story teeters between tale and farce.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

It's almost good, almost authentic, but Up at the Villa is seriously undermined by the uncertainty of the filmmakers' intentions. This is one W. Somerset Maugham story they didn't quite know how to make. Dated as it is, the story teeters between tale and farce. Still, there is a special magic to an era that is recent enough for us to imagine ourselves in, as opposed to a costume epic that belongs certainly to history. Just try to forget that they've messed up the details.

It is 1938. The Munich pact has erased the sting of immediacy from the threat of war. The expatriate community in Florence continues to live in delightful suspension. Mr. Leopardi (Massimo Ghini), a fascist in caricature, is dropped into the film to remind us of what's coming.

Maugham's story focuses on Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), an English beauty staying indefinitely and alone at a glorious villa on loan from a friend. Mary, who has been left penniless by her late alcoholic husband, is about to secure her future by marrying Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox). Stuffed from head to toe with honor, Edgar is a superb portrait of British duty.

As the newly appointed governor of Bengal, Edgar will give Mary the fine life of the Empire. In return, Mary will be Edgar's ornament. In the two days she requests for considering his proposal, Mary gets herself into a peck of trouble. In time-honored guilt over the less privileged, she befriends a waiter whose feelings had been hurt at the dinner party she has just left. She invites him to come up the hill to the villa to see the garden, to see the triptych, and finally to make love to her. In a spasm of compassion for the humble Austrian refugee, she has created a perfect evening for him.

When things turn to melodrama with a shooting, a body in need of disposal, and a troublesome maid who heard a shot, Mary summons the American guest she had met at the party. In a truly odd bit of miscasting, Sean Penn plays Rowley Flint, the somewhat mysterious American who comes to Mary's aid. Mr. Penn responds intelligently to his dilemma by saying as little as possible and remaining expressionless in the hope that restraint will make him a man of the world. Sean Penn may be many things, but he is not a sophisticate. Kristin Scott Thomas is rigidly formal and, along with her colleagues, uncertain about the material.

The fun of the movie comes from Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft), an aging party giver, a woman with a past who lives for gossip and the daily routine of manipulating her friends. But even Bancroft has trouble finding her footing. Drifting among accents, including one from Queens, she uses gesture and exaggeration to enliven things. With a noble assist from Derek Jacobi, she manages to be the life of this often dull, but handsome, party.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 496
Studio : Universal
Rating : R
Running time : 1h55m

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