Up At The Villa

on May 05, 2000 by L. J. Strom
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   The adage that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" is dramatically illustrated in "Up at the Villa," a lush, respectful adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novella. Set in Florence just before World War II, the film focuses on a young English woman, Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), recently widowed and nearly broke. Her only prospects appear to lie in a marriage proposal from Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), an English civil servant. Though not in love with Edgar, Mary is inclined to accept the secure if humdrum life he can offer. But encounters with the garrulous Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft) and American playboy Rowley Flint (Sean Penn) awaken other feelings within her that culminate when, after spurning a seduction attempt by Rowley, Mary takes pity on an impoverished Austrian refugee (Jeremy Davies) and gives him one night of tenderness. Her "good deed," however, goes disastrously awry when the young Austrian returns and grows suicidal upon Mary's insistence that their affair was simply a one-nighter.

   "Villa" may be yet another pristine British period piece, but it's a compellingly wrought example of the genre and tells its story well. From the moonlit gardens of Italy and the twilight glamour of the expatriate scene to Penn's mature sensuality and Bancroft's glorious brassiness, the film gets every detail just right. And at its core is Thomas' intelligent, richly nuanced performance; despite the superb supporting cast around her, Thomas must carry the story as well as embody its moral ambiguities, and she proves quite equal to this task.

   The film's major drawback is a certain stateliness that prevents it from really catching on fire. But fortunately, this decorum also lends the appropriate emotional weight to the story's moral questions and, in places, creates such suspense that the sound of a single gunshot can almost stop your heart. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox and Jeremy Davies. Directed by Philip Haas. Written by Belinda Haas. Produced by Geoff Stier. A USA release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements. Running time: 115 minutes

Tags: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox, Jeremy Davies, Philip Haas, Belinda Haas, Geoff Stier, USA release, Drama, British, respectful, Princess, Austrain, affair
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