Somerset Maugham gets the full Masterpiece Theatre treatment
in Philip Haas’ filmization of the British author’s 1941
novella. To tell the truth, the book wasn’t one of Maugham’s
proudest achievements; he wrote it for a “ladies’ magazine”
during his wartime stay in the U.S., and it has a lot more in
common with Fanny Hurst and cinema poitboilers of the time
than with the writer’s more ambitious work. Still, on screen
it makes for a glossy, old-fashioned wartime romance, spiced
with some modest socio-political commentary and a plot
involving death and concealment. The result is entirely
unconvincing as drama, but amusing as pulpish melodrama in the
vein of (though hardly as pleasurable as) “Casablanca.”

The focus is on Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), one of
those plucky but penniless glamorous British heroines so
beloved of English fiction (you can find them endlessly in
Agatha Christie stories). Mary, a lovely widow, decamps at a
beautiful Florentine villa as the result of the generosity of
friends, and she immediately enters into the social whirl of
the now-fascist city, hobnobbing with the ostentatiously
flamboyant Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft), catching
the eye of Mussolini’s local henchman Leopardi (Massimo
Ghini), falling in with gay, dissolute British expatriate Lucky
Leadbetter (Derek Jacobi), and even getting an immediate
proposal of marriage from an old friend, the uptight, rigorous
Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), who’s about to become governor-
general of India. When Swift departs on government business,
however, Mary gets involved with two other guys: a nervous
Austrian exile named Karl (Jeremy Davies), with whom she has a
one-night stand out of a sense of pity, and wealthy but married
American Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), a well-tooled but ever-so-
slightly disreputable fellow not unlike Humphrey Bogart’s north
African Rick. Mary’sflightiness leads to a death, a not-quite-
successful coverup, some blackmail, and a denouement centering
on which man she’ll eventually wind up with; indeed, there are
lots of pulpy plot complications added to the mix, although–to
be sure–they’re all handled by helmer Philip Haas with the
greatest of taste and discretion, and so made to seem less
obviously silly than they actually are.

Scott Thomas gets through the material with a minimum of
embarrassment by keeping a stiff upper lip throughout even
the most nerve-wracking moments (Fox does likewise, but that’s
nothing new). Penn is surprisingly at ease in his undemanding
role, exuding an underated charm that’s fairly effective.
Bancroft, as usual, overplays, but in this context she adds a
bit of life to the usually sedate proceedings, while Davies
fusses about in his usual fashion, nonetheless earning some
sympathy. Ghini give a trace of credibility to what’s
basically a stock character, but even Jacobi can’t do much
with the part of an effeminate, cynical observer of events.

If looked at realistically, “Up at the Villa” is a fairly
absurd story, but it’s been gussied up to a brilliant sheen,
and the Italian settings are extremely attractive (kudos to
cinematographer Maurizio Calvesi and designer Paul Brown for
their work). There’s also a nicely lush score by Pino
Donaggio to add to its atmosphere of fuzzy warmth. The whole
thing isn’t credible for a moment, but at least it has a
story to tell (unlike the similarly-set “Tea With Mussolini,”
which was all atmosphere and quirky characterization), however
ridiculous it all might seem; and despite the fact that it’s
second- or third-rate Maugham, it manages in this cinemtic
guise at least to hold one’s interest.