Movie review of Up at the Villa

Monday, May 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Once "Up at the Villa" reaches its telegraphed finale, the crime that led to it has become an afterthought.

Which leads you to wonder whether the film is an indictment of upper-class provincialism or a statement on the futility of upward mobility.

Based on the minor W. Somerset Maugham novella of the same name, "Up at the Villa" begins as yet another generic tour of European haute monde, with gossipy old ladies, frumpy old men, the requisite young beauty and the lucky young scalawag who draws the seat next to her at dinner.

In this case, the beauty is recently widowed and penniless Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas); the scoundrel is Rowley Flint (Sean Penn).

Mary has been courted since her teens by Edgar Swift, a man 25 years her senior who is about to be named governor of Bengal. Their marriage seems a fait accompli, and everyone is gossiping giddily about it.

In the novella, set in Florence in the early days of World War II, Mary is 30, and Edgar looks a robust and handsome 45. But in the film, Mary looks 40, and Edgar, played by James Fox, looks like her tired grandfather. It's not an easy coupling to believe in.

Mary confides her troubles to Rowley after a dinner party sponsored by the Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft), and then nearly runs down young Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies), the poor violinist who performed so dreadfully at dinner.

Feeling charitable, Mary invites the young Austrian refugee to the villa, where he admires her art, her garden, and then her.

When Karl learns that she gave herself to him out of pity, he turns violent and threatens to kill her with the pistol Edgar left for her protection. "You showed me the heavens, and now you want to send me back into hell?" he shouts. "No! No!"

But Karl chooses another course of action that forces Mary and Rowley into a life of crime.

Director Philip Haas, while remaining generally true to the novella, makes a few small changes that have a large effect on the story.

In the original work, Mary's own misguided sense of kindness leads to the ill-fated tryst. In the film, Princess San Ferdinando plants the idea's seed, thus eliminating much of the novella's tragic irony.

Mr. Haas also - probably out of necessity, considering that he's working from a novella - introduces several new characters, most notably Fascist leader Beppino Leopardi (Massimo Ghini), whose office looks like a Kafka-esque ski lodge.

Leopardi suspects Rowley's involvement in the dark shenanigans, leaving Mary to find a way to save her friend while saving face.

Mr. Penn, meanwhile, acts more like an actuarial analyst than the raiser of heck and seducer of women he's supposed to be. Were it not for the other characters' constant reminders that he is, indeed, a scamp, he would appear headed straight for frumpy-old-man status.

Mary's behavior ultimately costs her, at least in the eyes of the Princess. But it also clears her head and prevents her from making the worst decision of her life.

And all it cost was the life a young refugee whom no one will ever miss. But hey, that's the way they do things up at the villa.

The question is, why should audiences care?

Apart from some beautiful scenic photography, this film gives them little reason to.