AFTER E.M. FORSTER, Jane Austin, and Graham Greene have hit the big screen in recent years, it's no surprise that the Brits would eventually turn their attention to their playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). Actually, Maugham was no stranger to Hollywood, having spent the latter part of his life there while his books were made into films, and his heroines were played by the likes of Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth. What is surprising is that a lesser work like Up at the Villa would be revived.
UP AT THE VILLA
directed by Philip Haas
with Anne Bancroft, Sean Penn, and Kristin Scott Thomas
opens May 5 at Uptown, Seven Gables
Kristin Scott Thomas, who's made a career playing tightly bound women who stray from their marriages, plays Mary, a once-wealthy Englishwoman who finds herself living off the charity of her fellow expats in pre-war Florence. ("Charity" is the word Mary uses for it, but when you see the gorgeous 17th-century Tuscan villa she's crashing at, it's hard to feel pity.) On the verge of engagement with rich Sir Edgar (James Fox), Mary surprises herself with a one-night stand—threatening her neat plan for a comfortable life.
The catalyst for Mary's impulsive behavior is an American playboy named Rowley Flint (Sean Penn). Unfortunately, despite his slicked-back hair and constant smirk, Penn is wrong for the part: His Rowley is too earnest, too soft-spoken, too benevolent towards Mary. On a moonlit stroll through the countryside, he advises her on the importance of love in marriage, which the pragmatic Mary can only scoff at. What makes their relationship compelling in the book is that the two aren't in love, but merely excited by each another—despite social convention and romantic clich鳮 In the film, just before Mary's looming engagement, a scandal erupts that forces her to decide—in a few tense days—between two different suitors, two different ways of self-definition. The choice is hers.
Director Philip Haas and his screenwriter wife Belinda Haas have previously succeeded with literary adaptations, as with 1995's Angels and Insects (based on a novella by A.S. Byatt). The handsome Up at the Villa doesn't rise to that level, but is notable for its fine acting. Anne Bancroft shines as Mary's shrewd advisor-in-love, an American social climber who married for her title of Princess. Derek Jacobi provides necessary comic relief as the flaming hanger-on, a man who clings to society knowing all too well how he doesn't belong. But the real star is Scott Thomas, who has loosened up considerably since The English Patient. She's utterly convincing as the naﶥ and restless Mary, and she's a joy to watch.