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Up at the Villa (R)
October Films

Historical fiction requires a deft hand. As tempting as it might seem, you can't just drop a bunch of characters into period costumes, have them say "by Jove!" a lot, and expect to open a window onto a lost world. Instead, in the best historical fiction (or drama, in the case of the movies) deep exploration of character -- including the specificity of a character's place in time -- illuminates the times in which a character lived, and the similarities and differences to the contemporary period.

If this all seems an abstraction, well, it is, but for a demonstration, go view Up at the Villa. As much as director Phillip Haas (Angels and Insects) might have gotten the 1930s period costumes and cars correct, as strong as the performances were by Sean Penn and Kristin Scott Thomas, as delightful as the film may be for Italophiles, ultimately Up at the Villa only provokes second-rate nostalgia.

This adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novella explores 48 hours in the life of Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a still, beautiful widow living in the English expatriate community of 1930s Florence. With only her beauty and good connections to recommend her to polite society, she should feel honored when Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox) asks for her hand in marriage. After all, despite his rather more advanced years, Swift is soon to be the Governor of Bengal, and can offer her all of the advantages of colonial money and position.

While she's thinking over the proposition, Mary does two unfortunate things. First, she meets American adventurer Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), and second, beds a young Austrian refugee (Jeremy Davies) out of pity. When the refugee returns the favor by killing himself in her bedroom, Mary turns to Rowley to get her out of the mess.

Up at the Villa has several things to recommend it: the setting and costuming is impeccable (as a lover of fine millenary, I salivated over the black and white hats sported by Anne Bancroft as the Princessa San Fernando), and any fan of Merchant-Ivory-type films will be more than satisfied. The central intrigue sequence creates some excellent suspense, and, as usual, Sean Penn does a wonderful job playing a rake and no-goodnik.

Unfortunately for Up at the Villa, however, hats, movie stars and purloined letters do not a great film make. Director Haas clearly has ambitions for this film, adding a local fascist police chief to create tension with Maugham's original cast of characters and to summon up the sense of impending war. But all he does is slow down the already slow pacing to a sometimes glacial crawl. There are long dinner party scenes with the war as a topic, an even longer scene where foreigners are apprised of their lack of rights in the "New Italy" under Mussolini, and plenty of other allusions to the coming catastrophe. None of it makes a dent in the self-absorbed characters, nor, for that matter, in the audience. What should be an ominous beat of the drums of fascism becomes a tedious backdrop to a sort-of love story where the characters are never fully realized.

Almost-misses like Up at the Villa are some of the most interesting films to watch for just that "what went wrong" quality. The film becomes a good lesson in how you can have so much going for you -- cinematography, actors, costuming, location, even good intrigue -- and miss the mark forgetting that, in the best films, character and history must become one and the same.

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