Up At The Villa

***

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

In the late Thirties, Florence appears to have been inhabited by ex-pat Brits of the old colonial variety, a smattering of sharp-witted Yanks, the odd impoverished widow on the look out for a richer second husband and amusing upper-class homosexuals, who know everyone.

Franco Zeffirelli got it exactly right in Tea With Mussolini. Philip Haas doesn't. The acting is either terrible or terrific and the social set pieces, like the Princess's dinner party, seem positively absurd.

Fascism raises its bullet head as storm troopers strut the streets, being rude to foreigners. The English are duffers, or pompous bores, almost universally stupid. Even Mary (Kristin Scott Thomas) tends to panic, make wrong choices and believe in nursery virtues, such as telling the truth.

Based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the plot is alive with the possibility of surprise. Mary is a nice person. She married a man who became a gambler and died of drink. Now she has rented a villa outside the city, where she is courted by Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox as solid oak), the future governor of Bengal, who wears an Old Etonian tie and talks through his nose.

The Princess (perfectly wonderful Anne Bancroft) is an American, who believes in marrying for the right reasons - money, social advancement, aristocratic connections - and adores the frivolities of life - intrigue, gossip, amusing men.

She decides that Mary needs cheering up and so arranges a meeting with bounder-of-the-month, Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), leading to flirty games - "I'm a good time guy. That's what I am." - from which Mary excuses herself.

An incident, involving an illegal immigrant (Jeremy Davies), ends in terror and bloodshed, drawing Mary and Rowley closer together. Meanwhile, the stiff-uppered Sir Edgar waits politely for her reply to his marriage proposal, while the fascists tighten their grip and the plum duffs bray about the Munich treaty, as if all will be well.

The whole thing creaks at the seams. Scott Thomas tackles Mary in the style of Princess Diana, cod innocence protecting insecurities that defy beauty and charm. It is a superb performance. Davies, the scared one in Saving Private Ryan, manages to convey tenderness and menace with an intensity that is both sympathetic and frightening.

As for Penn, he should avoid playboys. In his tailored suits, he looks uncomfortably miscast. The chemistry doesn't work and he is left stranded with a silly grin on his face. For light relief, turn to Derek Jacobi, as a raging queen on the art tourism circuit. So brazen! So outré!

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Upper-class lust and betrayal in Thirties Florence.
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Director: Philip Haas

Writer: Belinda Haas

Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox, Jeremy Davies, Derek Jacobi

Year: 2000

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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Tea With Mussolini