Part travelogue and part Lifetime liberated-woman-of-the-week movie, Audrey Wells’s film claims a pedigree from Frances Mayes’s autobiographical book of the same title, but it strays awfully far from its source, which detailed the author’s remodeling of a Tuscan house with her husband and their becoming immersed in the local life. In this telling what Wells terms a “dramatic storyline” has been created pretty much from scratch, and “Under the Tuscan Sun” becomes the tale of Frances (Diane Lane), a California writer-professor taken to the financial cleaners in a divorce caused by her philandering leech of a husband, who impulsively buys a run-down Italian villa and builds a new life in it, in the process gaining a surrogate family, even if romantic love seems to elude her. You might think of the result as a thoroughly conventionalized version of the far lovelier, much more charming “Enchanted April.” Its theme–as in Mayes’s original–is still personal renewal in the Italian countryside, but it’s now expressed in terms that wouldn’t be out of place on afternoon serial television.
The movie does offer some compensatory pleasures. One is the north Italian landscape, captured in radiant tones by Geoffrey Simpson’s exquisite cinematography. Another is Lane, who proves every inch a lead actress here, giving a performance that’s hardly deeply textured or subtle, but holds the attention through sheer star quality. And a third embraces some fine supporting players, including Vincent Riotta as the grave yet warm realtor who becomes Frances’ chief support in the unfamiliar environment, and Pawel Szajda, Valentine Pelka and Sasa Vulicevic as the three expatriate Poles whom she hires to renovate the villa.
But these virtues are ultimately insufficient. Wells’s refashioning has turned Mayes’s original into something like a bathetic soap opera. The introductory section dealing with the divorce–complete with an overly cute episode featuring an apartment house catering to divorced residents–gets it off to a bad start. The introduction of a lesbian couple–Patti (Sandra Oh) and Grace (Kate Walsh)–as Frances’s best friends, with the former of them pregnant with a child they plan to raise together, raises another all-too-faddish twist, and when Patti later shows up at the villa just on the verge of delivery, the calculated nature of the subplot is even more evident. The scene in which Frances actually arranges to purchase the place from an elderly and unwilling seller is the stuff of sitcom, and a plot threat concerning the transformation Frances undergoes by becoming an expert practitioner of Italian cuisine is way too obvious. Another subplot, about a dark-haired, histrionic Italian woman (Lindsay Duncan) who prattles on endlessly about her career with “Federico” (Fellini) and at one point thrashes about in a fountain mimicking Anita Ekberg in “La Dolce Vita,” is grating in its overblown theatricality. And then there are the heavy-handed “romantic” elements. One involves Frances’s acting as matchmaker in the courtship of one of the Poles (young Szajda) with a neighboring lass (Guilia Steigerwalt) whose family opposes their relationship; the other concerns Frances’s own excited attachment to Marcello (Raoul Bova), a handsome fellow she meets by accident who sweeps her off her feet. And as if they weren’t enough, Wells adds a final romantic twist at the close, presumably to satisfy viewers who can’t tolerate an ending that isn’t entirely sweet.
These elements of the old-fashioned “dramatic storyline” that Wells has imposed over Mayes’s original won’t bother viewers looking for pretty but essentially vacuous feel-good entertainment with an unthreateningly feminist twist. And many will be impressed with the sheer star quality of Lane’s performance. Others, however, will find the result little more than a standard-issue (and standard-tissue) woman’s picture and imagine what an adaptation of the original might have been like without benefit of the writer-director’s doubtful improvements. For them, the gorgeous scenery insures that time spent “Under the Tuscan Sun” won’t be particularly painful; but it’s not likely to be especially memorable, either.