'Villa': Oblivious in Italy

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2000

Last year it was "Tea With Mussolini." This year it is Tee Many Martoonies for a clique of snooty expatriates in "Up at the Villa." This fairly pedestrian adaptation of Somerset Maugham's 1941 novella doesn't mirror the plot of Franco Zeffirelli's popular art film, but it, too, concerns a clique of Anglo-Americans lingering in Tuscany on the eve of World War II.

Despite obvious omens, persistent rumors and can't-miss clues, this self-contained community, like the one in "Mussolini," is blind to the rise of fascism. The ninnies simply refuse to believe that so sinister a political movement could flourish in a country as warm and lovely as Italy. So they break out the gin and fiddle about like so many Neros.

The story centers on the alluring Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), an English widow left penniless by her profligate husband. The villa's absent owners have invited her to stay there till she gets on her feet. The Princess (showboating Anne Bancroft), an American socialite who rules over the in crowd, makes Mary's welfare her pet project.

The widow is on the verge of accepting the proposal of Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), an old family friend and the designated future governor of Bengal. Though Mary cherishes his friendship, he is 25 years older than she and about as much fun as a stuffed moose. The Princess urges her to marry Sir Edgar for the security, then introduces her to Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), a wealthy, unhappily married American rounder.

It's hardly surprising when Rowley makes a play for Mary, who's no easy target, for she's been there and done that. Of course, he persists; of course, Mary slaps his face; of course, she wants him bad. Now she must choose between her heart and her purse. But before she can decide, she becomes entangled in a messy scandal that involves evidence-tampering, blackmail, bribery and suicide. Oh, my.

The increasingly melodramatic film's principal attraction is the relationship between Rowley and Mary, and there is some chemistry between the leads. Scott Thomas proved in "The English Patient" that she can set off fireworks. She was, however, playing opposite the swellegant Ralph Fiennes, not the plebeian, miscast Penn. Try though he might, and boy does he ever, Penn cannot turn himself into a sleek sex bomb.

"Up at the Villa," like the original material, is on the thin side, although director Philip Haas and writer Belinda Haas have invented a couple of characters and complications to heighten the jeopardy in the final half. But the resulting film remains a fragile chamber piece.

Up at the Villa (115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexuality and a suicide.

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