Tea With Mussolini

Tea With Mussolini

****1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Franco Zeffirelli's memory of youth is one of those films you expect to be worthy, well meaning and dull, but which turns out to be a genuine surprise. The location is breathtaking, the period absorbing, the story heartwarming and the acting so fine you want to leap from your seat and shout something inappropriate, such as "Encore!"

Based on the first three chapters of the director's autobiography, it tells of the illegitimate son of a cloth manufacturer, who is adopted by a clique of highborn, artistic English ladies, living in Florence during the late Thirties, and ends with liberation by Scottish soldiers as the Germans are pushed out of Italy.

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Lady Hester (Maggie Smith) is the doyen of the group, an ambassador's widow, and fearless defender of tradition. She particularly dislikes Americans for what she sees as their unapologetic vulgarity and has more than a sneaking admiration for all things El Duce.

Arabella Delancey (Judi Dench) loves frescos, her dog, poetry and painting. If she appears a little dotty and overemotional, it is nothing but the winged spirit of her creative muse beating at the doors of perception - as she would describe it.

Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) works part time, translating letters for the cloth manufacturer, whose son, Luca, remains unacknowledged, even after he has run away from an orphanage. Reluctantly, she takes responsibility for the boy, teaching him table manners and Shakespeare and introducing him to "the Scorpioni", which is what the ladies are called, because of their refusal to do what they are told.

Elsa Morganthall (Cher) is from another planet. She is fabulously wealthy, having been a Ziegfeld girl, who had the sense to marry rich, old men in the twilight of their gratitude. She comes to Florence, because she loves it and to see her friend, Georgie (Lily Tomlin), an uninhibited lesbian archeologist.

Cleverly scripted by John Mortimer and Zeffirelli, the film covers the rise and fall of fascism, the years of conflict when the ladies are interned, Elsa's personal tragedy and Luca's education in love, art and war.

It would be unfair to single out individual performances from such a cornucopia of excellence, but Michael Williams, in a small but telling role, is subtlety incarnate and Maggie Smith hasn't had a part as scrumptious as this since The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne.

Rather than be dazzled by the starry spangle of Dames a-dancing, Cher is as close to heaven as it flies. Not only does she look like a million dollars, but behaves as if she owns as much - and more. It makes you wonder why she's been away so long, conquering the hit parade and decorating houses, when her acting (Mermaids, Moonstruck) is so direct and charming.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Coming of age story about an illegitimate child.
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Director: Franco Zeffirelli

Writer: John Mortimer

Starring: Paul Chequer, Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin, Baird Wallace, Charlie Lucas, Massimo Ghini, Paolo Seganti, Claudio Spadaro, Mino Bellei

Year: 1999

Runtime: 116 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Italy

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