Up at the Villa opens with a party of Anglo-American expatriates in Florence, Italy, just around the time of the 1938 Munich peace talks. The ex-pats are dancing full-tilt to a jazz band, kicking and swinging in time to the music, and the sight of rich old people who don’t look like fattened nabobs makes one think that Villa will find other fresh ground to plow. Unfortunately that party scene represents the one spasm of freedom in a movie that’s otherwise fixed in amber.
Adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s novella by Belinda Haas and directed by Philip Haas, Villa tells the story of Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a poor English widow staying at a friend’s luxurious villa in Tuscany. When a rich older man (James Fox) proposes marriage to her, Mary seeks the counsel of the Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft), a fading beauty who in world-weary epigrams advises her to accept the proposal. Mary’s friendship with the Princess brings her into contact with two other men: Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies), a penniless young Austrian in flight from the Nazis, and an unhappily married American gadabout named Rowley Flint (Sean Penn). Mary’s emotional crisis comes to a head over the course of a long evening in which Rowley tries to make love to her. Mary rebuffs him but, her head filled with old affairs and dead young lovers, she takes the Austrian boy into her bed out of pity and nostalgia. This action results in a hysterical tragedy that forces Mary to hide her role in the scandal as she sorts out her feelings about the men in her life.
The Haases try to spice up this applesauce by using Fascism as a portentous undercurrent. The film generates what little suspense it has through Leopardi (Massimio Ghini), the leader of the local Black Shirts. It’s never made clear what drove the elegant, well-spoken Leopardi into the arms of Mussolini, but the fact that Mary doesn’t reciprocate his romantic interest might indicate that he’s an off-the-rack Fascist whose villainy is rooted in sexual frustration. Leopardi responds to Mary’s evasions by sneering at Rowley whenever he gets the chance, and later by having the American beaten up when he’s found in possession of a firearm. Villa’s references to international tensions occasionally have some drollness to them (the living-in-denial expatriates throw a "Peace In Our Time Party"), but the oncoming war is used mostly for the familiar air that it lends to the action.
It’s depressing to think that the Haases couldn’t find a way to make Rowley Flint, Lucky Leadbetter, and their other absurdly-named characters relevant to modern audiences. Left untouched in Maugham’s story is everything that dates the material, particularly the time-capsule dialogue. It’s funny early on when an old duffer exclaims, "Governor of Bengal, by Jove!" because it sounds like a Monty Python joke, but when Sean Penn (of all people) is seen screaming into the night, "Marry your aging empire builder and be damned!," you realize that the Haases think this is grand, exciting stuff. Up at the Villa resounds with awkward and dusty locutions: "I’m a good-time guy. That’s what I am." "Life is about risk. I’ll be at the villa at four with the gun." And for the first time in what must be thirty years: "Don’t worry, I’ll see myself out!"
In last year’s The End of the Affair, Neil Jordan reinvigorated the ’40s melodrama by creating a sense of wartime London that played off the look and feel of that era’s movies. Up at the Villa approaches its similar task in the most unimaginative way possible, by filling the screen with period wardrobe, bric-a-brac, and furnishings. Every set looks ready to collapse under the ponderous decor; the actors recite their taxidermied lines while buried nipple-deep in antique doodads.
Thomas looks like she belongs in the movie’s time period, but she gives another of her preening, careful performances – not even the passion and confusion of a Mary Panton can rattle her crystalline reserve. (She’s barely mussed after a night’s worth of sex.) The fiery immediacy of Penn’s past roles make it impossible to accept him as an amiable rake who longs for domestication; he speaks several decibels lower than all of the other actors, as if he knows that he’s crashed the wrong party and wants to minimize his presence. And Jeremy Davies gives a dizzyingly bad performance, hopping about and working his hands in the air while gibbering in broken English. When he pretends to click his heels together and floridly introduces himself as "Kurt Richter, Art Student!," it’s an Oskar Werner moment that Davies just can’t handle. No wonder he shoots himself halfway through the picture.
Up at the Villa downplays the most potent element in its story, the young man’s despair over this woman who, having made him feel alive for the first time in his life, kicks him back into the gutter. Karl’s sense of betrayal is identical to that of the abused bank clerk in Howards End – it has the same overtones of class bitterness and dismay. But Karl Richter is a mere cog in Up at the Villa, just as he would be in real life, existing only to set Mary sailing into Rowley Flint’s arms. The Haases are too busy fussing over cosmetic details – such as Rowley’s crooked bowtie, or a shillelagh that’s hauled about by a token gay character (Derek Jacobi) simply because it bespeaks flamboyance – to worry about the real points of interest in their picture.
In The Music of Chance the Haases showed that they weren’t afraid to work with alien tones and situations, making it all the more baffling that they’d be content with such retro fare as this. Whether it was simple nostalgia or something else that drew them to Up at the Villa, it feels like the last shot fired in a war that was settled long, long ago.
– Tom Block