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With: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox, Jeremy Davies, Derek Jacobi
Written by: Belinda Haas, based on a book by W. Somerset Maugham
Directed by: Philip Haas
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements
Running Time: 115
Date: 04/14/2000
IMDB

Up at the Villa (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Costumes and Crime

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on a novella by W. Somerset Maugham, the new film Up at the Villa starts out like any other rolling-hills, Hallmark-hall-of-fame, costume movie. There's a cheerfully vulgar matriarch (Anne Bancroft) who butts into everyone's business, a penniless lovely woman (Kristin Scott Thomas) who depends on the kindness of strangers and is looking for a husband, and a carefree young American (Sean Penn) who shows her a little fun. But then something happens that changes all that. A gun is introduced.

Jean-Luc Godard once said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. Alfred Hitchcock said that if you introduce a gun in the first reel of your movie, you'd better be prepared to use it. And it certainly does spice up these proceedings.

It's the early 1940's in Florence, Italy, and World War II is stirring in the wings. Kristin Scott Thomas receives a marriage proposal from a respectable rich older gentleman, who then leaves for a few days, giving her a chance to think it over. He also leaves her his gun. In the meantime, she meets a young violinist (Jeremy Davies) who turns out to be a refugee. Out of pity she sleeps with him. He expects a love affair, but is spurned and kills himself with her gun. Penn helps her dispose of the body, and they start to feel like they got away with it. Of course, that feeling is fleeting.

I have to admit, I was bored until Davies showed up about 30 minutes in. Davies is a wonderful young actor who specializes in deeply neurotic characters, as in David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan> (1998). Sporting a soft Italian accent and a gaunt face, he's absolutely riveting for his short time onscreen. Then, of course, after he's gone, the crime plot takes over and the pace picks up considerably.

The acting here is nearly uniformly excellent. Bancroft eats up the matriarch role with its delicious dialogue that actresses like Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave usually take on. Thomas has more to do than just look pretty (which she's no slouch at) and pulls off a reserved strength and independence. Derek Jacobi appears in a throwaway role as the town queen, who singsongs his dialogue and swishes his hips. The only question mark is Penn, who gives a kind of stiff Keanu Reeves-like reading. There's no question he's one of the best actors we've got, and he can play anything. But I couldn't figure out what he was doing here.

Up at the Villa was made by the husband and wife team of writer/editor Belinda Haas and director Philip Haas (who last made Angels and Insects in 1995). I suspect that they, like me, had more fun with the middle "crime" section of the film and simply felt obligated to present the rest as dull and slow. The film is colorful and fun for a while, and those who seek it out will probably find it worth their money, but I can't claim any great enthusiasm for it.

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