Up at the Villa
First screened and reviewed in July 2000 / Review updated in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Philip Haas. Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox, Jeremy Davies, Derek Jacobi, Massimo Ghini. Screenplay: Belinda Haas (based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham).

Twitter Capsule: Not bad as a romantic period potboiler, but even more impressive as a subtle upending of that genre and its tropes.

VOR:   Most urgent for fans of the stars; we rarely see Penn or Scott Thomas like this. The wit and uneasy tone make it different.

Photo © 2000 USA Films
The only coherent way to understand Philip Haas's Up at the Villa, the only way the film makes sense, is to interpret it as a sort of spoof of itself: not a standard-issue Brits-in-Italy melodrama, but a sly, subtle exposure of how overcooked and preposterous the entries in that genre tend to be. I have several friends who found Up at the Villa hopelessly labored, which was also the near-universal reaction of critics. But neither director Haas nor his screenwriter/editor/wife Belinda has ever made a film that served up familiar conventions without inviting us to ruminate on them, to observe them from a new distance. If I ever meet the makers of Up at the Villa and discover that their aim was to make a sincere World War II-era potboiler, I'll rescind the benefit of the doubt and accept that they've made a worrying botch of it. But these are smart people we're dealing with, and both the performances and the visual scheme betray enough winky wit that I'm confident in the project's status as at least in part an elaborate joke. And on those terms, I had a whale of a time watching it.

Kristin Scott Thomas, so stirring in the filmmakers' Angels & Insects, stars here as Mary Panton, an unmarried Englishwoman living in Tuscany. Mary's patrician features disguise her decidedly plebeian circumstances. She is flat broke, and her disguise isn't really working. The upper-crusty women who preside over Mary's social set know that she needs a husband to save her from "ruin," that perennial bogeyman of period drama. The film begins with a shot of these tongue-wagging dames, headed by Anne Bancroft's Princess San Ferdinando, standing on a balcony, looking down on Mary as she dances in the titular villa with Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), a rising figure in English politics who is soon to accept a prestigious post in India.

Though Bancroft & Co. literally look down on Mary in this shot, we in turn look down on them; the camera invites us to examine everyone from a superior analytical position, which is an early cue that we aren't to take the characters or their plights fully seriously. In fact the real focus of this scene isn't whether Mary is in social danger—who doesn't want to marry Kristin Scott Thomas??—but the gaudy decor and garish colors. Up at the Villa is onto how the British upper class, particularly their expatriate division, loved nothing more than to create enclaves of ostentation wherever they settled in the world, wiling away time in these artificial outposts by feigning a concern with beauty, taste, and "propriety." Probably the last thing that bored, independent Mary should do is wed a stuffed-shirt who will keep her trapped in this tedious, amoral enclave. Scott Thomas, a very sharp actress often underused, plays Mary as a woman less interested in following the rules than in showily defying them, but with ideas more limited and naïve than she thinks they are. Notching her voice up to a breathy whine, she purposefully makes Mary slightly ridiculous—not immune, then, from the class critique the filmmakers are mounting. As ever, though, the actress's face and manner are so fascinating that we never stop caring about Mary. We still like her, though director, screenwriter, and star make clear that we shouldn't love her.

Mary meets a perfect accomplice in subversive attitudinizing in Rowley Flint, an American gadfly and globetrotter played by Sean Penn. Though Penn doesn't have as large a part as his billing suggests, he fares very well in a suave role utterly removed from his disparate bottom-feeders in Carlito's Way, Hurlyburly, and Sweet and Lowdown. Up at the Villa features two dynamite sequences, and they both focus on Scott Thomas and Penn. The first follows Mary and Rowley as he drives her home from a society dinner. His romantic and sexual propositions are severely rebuffed, but his iconoclastic temperament ignites Mary's most reckless impulses. After leaving Penn, she picks up an indigent Austrian refugee, an ill-qualified violinist named Karl Richter (Saving Private Ryan's Jeremy Davies), and takes him for a walk through her garden and a romp in her bed. This casual intercourse represents poor, misguided Mary's attempt at social activism. It simply doesn't occur to her that a one-night tryst with a poor foreign exile she has no intention of seeing again smacks at all of condescension, or vanity, or moral imbecility. The interactions are well-filmed between Scott Thomas and Davies, both before and after their hot night, but the disastrous aftermath is better, when Mary enlists Rowley's help in destroying the evidence of what turns out to be a disastrous mishap.

If casting Kristin Scott Thomas as a sexual naïf and Sean Penn as Cary Grant doesn't already trip your parody alarm, Up at the Villa also offers a pointed narrative of how relentlessly the British hold Americans in contempt, until they need saving from their border-crossing misadventures. Maugham's novel, like much of his work, offers its melodrama with such a straight face that critics and readers have debated for years whether he took his own plots seriously. Philip and Belinda Haas cheekily honor that tradition by refusing to play the satire too broadly, and I expect that's why so many viewers have dismissed Up at the Villa as inane. Quite to the contrary, I contend that the novel and the film both expose its British expatriate community as hypocritically "refined" and ludicrously epicurean;the film's funniest shot shows a tennis court rimmed with incongruous bushels of enormous tomatoes, so that gustatory pleasure is never more than a reach away. In a sense, Mary cannot act "immorally" in a society so hedonistic, so unconcerned with moral behavior or reflection. Rowley knows this, and when Mary learns it, she takes a whole new sort of glee in confounding expectations and breaking codes. But the parody works because it is delivered so drily, which the directors and their stars no well how to do. By contrast, the broader comic stylings of Anne Bancroft, though less garish than we've come to expect from recent outings like Great Expectations, seem crude by comparison and do little to serve the film.

The last half-hour of Up at the Villa deviates most drastically from its source text. The filmmakers work harder than Maugham did to overtly connect the deludedness of the characters to the political circumstances of Mussolini's Italy. I wouldn't call any of these scenes mistaken, exactly, but they do seem a little familiar from earlier films, and Up at the Villa coasts along showing us a good, hammy time without adding anything to its satiric agenda. Still, Scott Thomas and Penn appear to enjoy themselves extravagantly, and they made me wish Hollywood matched actors of their intelligence more often, and more evenly. Though Up at the Villa may not be as "good" a film as Angels & Insects, in a way it's even more unexpected and subversive of generic expectations, and I adored seeing empty-headed Italian escapades like the recent and unbearable Tea with Mussolini getting skewered within an inch of their weightless lives. Like those films, Up at the Villa lingers on its costumes, sets, and scenery, but this time we can't help noticing how effulgent it all looks, even ugly at times. It's the society that is overripe, not the film itself, which is wonderfully smart and controlled. Don't assume that filmmakers aren't laughing just because you don't hear any jokes. Grade: B+

Ed. July 2009: I still agree with the spirit and drift of this review, even if a second viewing nine years later makes me a tad less sanguine about the filmmaking and a bit blanched about a few of my earlier overstatements. My frequent recourse to the language of "satire" and phrases like "whale of a good time" are likely to oversell the implied joie de vivre of this frequently sedate movie. Plus, the unimaginative cinematography and blocking as well as a slight aura of under-direction coming from the actors—palpable in Scott Thomas's and Davies's boudoir scenes and in several of Penn's line readings—obligate me to concede a few more of Up at the Villa's flaws than I was willing to do when most other critics were digging its grave. A few scenes do play as rather earnest attempts to mount a beach-reading period mystery, and they're rarely the most interesting scenes, though I still find the movie highly watchable throughout.

And yet, in its wittiest moments, the film deliciously restores me to my initial plane of enthusiasm, no less so for operating more subtly than I communicate in this write-up. I'm sure I didn't catch in 2000 the subtle pattern by which Haas and cinematographer Maurizio Calvesi repeatedly frame and light Mary's encounters with Edgar, Rowley, and the poor violinist in exactly the same way, drawing out Mary's failures to distinguish among them and her tendency to project her feelings for any one of them onto the other. The shot of the tomato-lined tennis court still gets me, but the film features many more shots that highlight the movie's peekaboo facetiousness: look at Scott Thomas's wide-eyed paralysis in the face of Davies's dismal musicianship, or at Bancroft splayed out in a tactically engineered stupor, or at Scott Thomas looking miserable at her morning-after lunch with Bancroft & Co., jaundiced and slouched in her seat while Rowley digs blithely into his food. Someone has graffiti'd "Viva Il Duce!" on the rock wall behind this ostentatiously casual expat repast, but no one seems to notice or mind. Only the audience is made privy to the all-too-typical narrowness of this gaggle and their concerns. I'm cutting myself off before writing a whole second review, but if I did, I'd have to mention Mary's fabulous bristling at Penn's smarmy wave of compliments about her beauty when they first meet, and Rowley's suppressed impulse to guffaw when, at the pivotal crime scene, he realizes how pathetically Mary has behaved, however foolishly noble her intentions. I'd say something, too, about how the production design and the costumes do, despite my original review, make some case for the chic appeal of period idioms, at instances when the characters aren't total victims of their garishness. I'd note how the occasional interjection of a truly unnerving image (Mary cowering from Karl in her mustard-colored bed, a bruised and beaten Rowley emerging from a pitch-black prison cell) preserves an edge of danger that makes the film's impulses toward subtle mockery all the trickier and more interesting as a tonal experiment, if less fully consistent than I once believed. I'd downgrade Up at the Villa a bit these days, but that's still a lot more credit than almost anyone else gave it. Particularly if you're a Scott Thomas or a Penn fan, eager to see them testing each other and trying their hand at atypical roles, I'd urge you to seek it out. New Grade: B

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