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'Up at the Villa'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2000


    'Up at the Villa' Sean Penn and Kristin Scott Thomas in "Up at the Villa." (USA Films)
In this moderately pleasing adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novella, set in Florence, 1938, the fascists are taking over, but the British and American expatriates (including Anne Bancroft) remain in their own rarefied world, moving from dinner party to dinner party. The story centers on Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a beautiful woman who is suddenly widowed and without funds. When Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), an older man who's about to be appointed Governor of India, proposes, her future looks assured. But she knows she doesn't love him. Along come two men to confuse the issue: Austrian refugee Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies), a frail, sensitive man escaping the Nazis, and American playboy, Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), a rascally ladies man, who is clearly smitten as soon as he meets Mary. A new complication soon follows: charming fascist Beppino Leopardi (Massimo Ghini), who also has romantic designs upon Mary, tells everyone to report regularly to the authorities and to supply information about any enemy of the new Italy. Mary's life takes a turn for the nerve-wracking when she becomes impulsively involved with Karl, which is followed by a shock tragedy, a dead body, a police inquiry, and Mary's frantic plea to Rowley to help her out of a jam. The movie hinges on a rather convenient way out, involving Beppino's past; Penn is not especially convincing as a debonair ladies' man of the 1930s; and Derek Jacobi has a ridiculous role as the resident philosopher-fairy of Florence. But Thomas has a wonderfully vulnerable performance. She – but she alone, alas – is the one to take you through this movie.

UP AT THE VILLA (PG-13, 115 minutes) – Contains sexual situations and violence.


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