Up at the Villa

Directed by Philip Haas
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox, Jeremy Davies, Derek Jacobi, Massimo Ghini.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements.

Review by Matt Heffernan
May 9, 2000

Amid the much ado about Gladiator this past weekend, a much smaller film made its limited national premiere. It also takes place in Italy, as did the beginning of I Dreamed of Africa -- which had a wide opening at the same time, but tanked. Up at the Villa wasn't meant to be a blockbuster -- and it never will be -- but of the three American debuts I saw this week, it was by far my favorite.

In the late 1930s, Mary Panton (Kristen Scott Thomas), a young British widow, is living in an Italian villa that belongs to some friends. Her once-wealthy husband left her nothing but debt, and her only hope for the future is marrying Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), a governing official in India. He gives her a few days to consider his proposal, as he goes back east to attend some business.

Mary doesn't really love him, but her wise friend Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft) suggests that she take a lover to compensate. At a dinner party, she arranges Mary to meet a rich American named Rowley Flint (Sean Penn). She isn't interested, instead spending the night with Karl (Jeremy Davies), an Austrian refugee who worked at the restaurant. The next day, Karl wishes to continue the relationship, but Mary rebuffs him, and he shoots himself right in her bedroom. She enlists the help of Rowley to cover-up the incident, attempting to maintain the reputations of Mary and Sir Edgar.

Thus is the plot set up, much like one of Hitchcock's early British films. I think that is what makes this film so appealing (to me, anyway). As seen in Tea With Mussolini, the British and American expatriates in fascist Italy could be quite amusing. Bancroft is a real treat, handing out advice and making witty observations. As in Gladiator, Derek Jacobi has a small, but juicy role, and gives a standout performance.

The leads were good, of course. Thomas and Penn are two of the best actors working today, yet they are somehow detached from this film. Nothing much gets going between them, except getting wrapped up in the plot. Somehow, I think Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll could have done it better, if only they weren't dead. That is probably just an old prejudice of mine, but it sticks.

Even though its style may seem old-fashioned, Up at the Villa was never as tiring as the two other new films. Few people are likely to see it with all the big summer movies coming up, but that won't keep me from enjoying films that suit my taste. I suggest that you do the same. Nobody can force you to watch a film you don't want to see, unless you are Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (a character that I sympathize with more and more each day).

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Up at the Villa (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Up at the Villa (2000) -- VHS
Up at the Villa (2000) -- DVD
Up at the Villa, a novella by W. Somerset Maugham -- Paperback
Up at the Villa: Original Soundtrack -- Compact Disc

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan