Up at the Villa
2000, PG-13, 115 min. Directed by Philip Haas. Starring Massimo Ghini, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Davies, James Fox, Anne Bancroft, Sean Penn, Kristin Scott Thomas.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 19, 2000
Visiting Up at the Villa is a pleasant enough experience, although you might find yourself wishing there were a little more activity happening on the premises. The movie is a charmingly mounted, period romantic drama that benefits from the performances of a fine ensemble cast and the lovely location settings of Florence and Tuscany. Set among a group of American and British expatriates in Italy on the eve of World War II, Up at the Villa fits nicely into that continuum of films like The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and, recently, The Last September, which explore the lifestyles of the rich and fabulous who were stomped into extinction across Europe by Nazi jackboots. However, this being a story adapted from a novella by W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage), Up at the Villa also packs a fair amount of danger and intrigue. Unlike last winter's Italian travelogue picture, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Up at the Villa uses its settings in a more organic and less postcardy way, but similarly uses Florence's centuries-old set-pieces as musty representations of vipers' nests and conspiracies. It's interesting to note that Maugham's novella was optioned by Hollywood upon its publication in 1940, although it has taken until the present century for the script doctors to figure out how to portray the story's central action -- a woman takes a young man to bed for one night of passion, which sets off a cataclysm of events -- in an acceptable light. Screenwriter Belinda Haas had the freedom of contemporary mores to support the frank depiction of the story's essential plot point (albeit it in PG-13 terms). Up at the Villa is the first script she has written on her own; her past scripts (The Music of Chance, Angels and Insects, and The Blood Oranges) have been co-authored with her husband Philip, who also directed all four films. The psychological suspense in Up at the Villa is not nearly as taut and twisted as the Haas' previous group studies, yet that merely diminishes this film by comparison. Up at the Villa is filled with wondrous performances that are fully pleasurable to watch, even if they make the viewer regret that there isn't more for the actors to do. Scott Thomas (who also appeared in Angels and Insects) evokes memories of her character in The English Patient, while Penn carves out a new type to add to his pantheon of characters -- this time playing a dashing American playboy in Europe. Bancroft, Davies, and Jacobi are also joys to watch, although Jacobi's shadowy character seems terribly underwritten. Up at the Villa offers a lovely movie getaway, but its accommodations are decidedly less than deluxe.