(director: Philip Haas; screenwriters: Belinda Haas/based on the novella by W. Somerset Maugham; cinematographer: Maurizio Calvesi; editor: Belinda Haas; cast: Kristin Scott Thomas (Mary Panton), Sean Penn (Rowley Flint), Anne Bancroft (Princess San Ferdinando), James Fox (Sir Edgar Swift), Jeremy Davies (Karl Richter), Derek Jacobi (Lucky Leadbetter), Massimo Ghini (Beppino Leopardi); Runtime: 115; A USA Films/Universal; 2000-UK)

“To inject some comedy into this dull film Derek Jacobi has a small part as a drag queen…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Based on a minor novella by W. Somerset Maugham, this bourgeois story is about some British and American expatriates living in Florence, Italy, in 1938, right before World War II started. The main focus is on a young British widow in her thirties, who lives in a fantastic villa.

The romantic film is mainly about how the prim English widow comes to grips with what love means. But she is painted into such a silly corner, because she never had a chance to do anything but pant heavily for close to two hours.

These expatriates, seekers of the good life, find themselves peeved at fascism because it has become a mild inconvenience to their lifestyles. This hardly makes one sympathetic to their plight when fascism is right on their gold-plated doorsteps and the party leader, Beppino Leopardi (Ghini), is invited to their elite parties.

Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas) has been struck a severe blow in life because of a failed first-marriage, where she married for love and then watched as her husband became a drunk, a wife-beater and squandered her inheritance. She is now forced to accept favors from her society friends, the idle rich sycophants who are lolling around at cocktail parties and at the tennis courts. She has the social connections but is short on the bread, which makes her feel very uncomfortable.

In the next few days Mary will have to make a big decision, as the much older Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox) asks her to marry him and will return from Rome in two days to hear her answer. Edgar is a longtime acquaintance knowing her ever since she was a child, but he is someone she is not in love with. He is a wealthy, proper gentleman who could offer her a secure and comfortable life, something that she is very tempted by. Her mentor and benefactor, the snobbish Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft), offers her advice: Forget love and marry for money.

At Anne Bancroft’s gathering for her society friends, the nattily dressed Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), an American with a terrible reputation as a shopgirl womanizer and someone of amoral character, is seated next to Mary and later is asked by Anne Bancroft to drive her home. Florence is starting to become a dangerous place at night because of the vagrants.

On the drive home Flint makes a pass at Mary and tries talking her out of marrying Sir Edgar, and gets slapped as he puts a serious move on her. She takes the car and hightails it out of there. But on the darkened road she nearly runs over the depressed Austrian violin player (Jeremy Davies) who played at the restaurant party she was at that evening, where despite his terrible violin playing she gave him a big tip. Feeling sorry for the nervous and disheveled bloke, she takes him back to her estate to show him the paintings on the wall, feed him, and give him the best screw he ever got in his life. This is a token of her patrician generosity as she figures this guy’s a refugee running away from the Nazis, I might as well give him something wonderful to remember for the rest of his life so if he goes back to the concentration camp he, at least, will have some pleasant memories. The problem with this melodramatic scene, was that the acting was shrill and the outcome was hardly convincing.

The next night the violin player who was supposed to leave Florence, instead decides to stay and have another romp in the hay with Mary. But she tells him no dice. Unfortunately, the violin player has a death wish and grabs the gun Sir Edgar gave her for protection and shoots himself in her bedroom. This is a very inconvenient place for him to die, so she enlists the help of Flint to dispose of his body and cover their trail. She mentions to Flint that she slept with the violin player because: “My heart was full of tenderness and pity.”

To inject some comedy into this dull film Derek Jacobi has a small part as a drag queen, offering Mary his support. While Anne Bancroft shamelessly culls laughs for her performance as a gossip-mongering high-class slut, who has a contemptible attitude toward people. Both performers chew the scenery without shame.

It is stiffly directed by Philip Haas (Angels and Insects/The Music of Chance), whose wife Belinda wrote the screenplay and was the film’s editor. I found this stiff upper lip film to be ridiculous, the acting robotic, and the story lacking in tension. It was not erotic and the story went out of its way not to make sense. That Mary has to choose between marrying the next governor of Bengal, India, someone who will never desert her, Sir Edgar; or, Flint, a playboy who will most likely grow tired of her and discard her for another, hardly seemed to matter. They all seemed to deserve each other. The only thing about this movie that pleased me, was how it couldn’t ruin the splendor of the beautiful Florence countryside and its splendidly graceful edifices. Florence is lushly photographed in all its magnificence.

Up at the Villa Poster