Up at the Villa
Up at the Villa's problem is that it's hard to take seriously. After all, how many of us can really relate? Yes, watching movies is all about suspending your disbelief, but to buy into the world of a film even the most fantastical requires sympathetic characters grounded in some sort of reality. Based on that, the pre-World War II high society Florence presented in this drama/murder mystery (based on a novella by W. Somerset Maugham) is almost less believable than the "far, far away" universe of Star Wars. The rundown despite her meager purse and ice-queen persona, impoverished widow Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a strong performance) mingles with the créme-de-la-créme of Florence, sporting different evening gowns every night and attracting every man who crosses her path, including Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), a distinguished British politician who wants to marry her. And despite his rag-tag appearance and pitiful job, violin player Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies) is an articulate, passionate revolutionary whose only fault is choosing the wrong woman to adore. And let's not even talk about American millionaire Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), a rough-and-tumble playboy captivated (like everyone else) by Mary's big-eyed charms as played by Penn, Rowley is a smooth-talking caricature. But even characters as predictable as these might have had a chance if they were given a decent screenplay. No such luck here. The casual conversation in Up at the Villa is fine, but all the moments of "high drama" play artificial, stilted, and clichéd. "I can't promise you forever," Rowley tells Mary while declaring his feelings for her, "but can anyone?" (Puh-lease.) And "I gave myself to him in a way I never gave myself to any man," declares Mary's nosy friend Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft, hampered with another cartoonishly stereotyped character) while describing a past fling. Of course, the film isn't all bad. The locales in enchanting, sun-kissed Italy and the costumes create a rich atmosphere, and Mary's clever desperation when dealing with ultra-suave fascist Beppino Leopardi (Massimo Ghini) is quite gripping. But, unfortunately, it's not enough to save the film, which ultimately only hints at the true emotions and drama under the facade of Florence's lush beauty and political tension. USA's DVD edition of Up at the Villa doesn't offer much in the way of extras, either the theatrical trailer and brief cast biographies/filmographies are the only special features on the disc. A four-page color booklet offers production notes and a table of contents for the chapter selection. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio options are both fine, but the 1.78:1 widescreen transfer seems dark in spots (although the lush Florence daytime shots look gorgeous). Keep-case.