Producers: Pippa Cross and Sam Tipper-Hale Director: James D’Arcy Screenplay: James D’Arcy Cast: Liam Neeson, Micheál Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Lindsay Duncan, Yolanda Kettle, Helena Antonio, Lavinia Biagi, Marco Quaglia, Gian Marco Tavani, Gabriele Tozzi, Eileen Walsh, Julian Ovenden, Chelsea Fitzgerald, Costanza Amati and Deborah Vale Distributor: IFC Films
It’s unusual—and rather a relief—to encounter a movie starring Liam Neeson in which he doesn’t play a father trying to track down either family members kidnapped by some dastardly villain or their killers. The first time he shared the screen with his real-life son Micheál Richardson, in last year’s “Cold Pursuit,” Hans Petter Moland’s English language remake of his 2014 Norwegian hit, Neeson was in fact seeking the boy’s fictional murderers. In actor James D’Arcy’s first feature as a filmmaker, by contrast, the young man, playing a character named Jack Foster, is still alive, and stays that way for the duration.
That’s not to say that Jack’s relationship with his dad Robert (Neeson) is particularly happy. They’ve been estranged for years, torn apart by the death of Robert’s wife Raffaella (Helena Antonio) in a car crash when she was bringing Jack, then just a tyke, home to their family house in Tuscany from a trip to the nearby village. Robert then sent Jack away to school, and they’ve been at odds since.
Now Jack is getting divorced from his wife Ruth (Yolanda Kettle), who owns the London art gallery he’s been managing for her family, and she brusquely announces to him that she intends to sell the place, which is his life’s work. He wants to buy it, but lacks the funds—so he contacts Robert, an aging lothario and long unproductive artist living in a London flat, so that they can quickly sell the Tuscan house that they jointly own, giving him the money he so desperately needs.
Naturally the place, though boasting a beautiful view, is in deplorable condition—though curiously some important rooms turn out to be almost preternaturally pristine for dramatic reasons—and the two men must bond to follow the advice of their local agent Kate (Lindsay Duncan) and work together in order to fix it up for sale (cue the obligatory clean-up montages, set to Alex Bclcher’s jaunty score). The result is sort of a male-centric version of “Under the Tuscan Sun.”
Rest assured that Jack will, in time, not only overcome his hostility to Robert via a predictable revelation but meet a local romantic interest in beautiful restaurateur Natalia (Valeria Bilello), a divorcee with a thriving business, a surly ex (Gian Marco Tavani) and a cute-as-a-button daughter named Anna (Costanza Amati).
This is a sloppily sentimental domestic drama, but it is given some resonance by the way in which the narrative, with its basis in Robert and Jack’s shared sense of loss, inevitably carries echoes of Liam and Micheál’s real-life loss of their wife and mother Natasha Richardson in a tragic skiing accident in 2009. Apart from that, however, it’s a pretty standard-issue—one might say prefabricated—tearjerker.
It does benefit, of course, from the presence of Neeson, who can bring gravitas—as well as gruff humor—to even a weakly-written role. Richardson doesn’t have his father’s experience, of course, and his performance is variable, though not unpleasant. Duncan brings some welcome spikiness to the mix, but Bilello, while undoubtedly attractive, with an engaging smile is—is, apart from Natalia’s unhappy marital history, not given much to work with. The rest of the Italian cast add some stereotypical local color, but D’Arcy encourages the actors playing potential buyers of the house—Eileen Walsh, Julian Ovenden and Chelsea Fitzgerald—to pitch their turns to the rafters, with predictably strident results.
Local color, of course, also comes from the Tuscan setting, nicely shot by Mike Elley, although one could yearn for glossier tones. Stevie Herbert’s production design is convincing enough—though the interiors of the house are sometimes so filled with junk that one doubts it could all be hauled off in a week (though we see no sign of that anyway). The editing by Mark Day and Anthony Boys is adequate, no more.
While it’s nice to see Liam Neeson in less frantic mode than he’s had to adopt in his recent action flicks—and it must have been a joy for him to work with his son—“Made in Italy” comes across as more ramshackle a structure than its house in the Tuscan sun.