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Lesser Maugham novella "Up at the Villa" becomes an uneven, ultimately unsatisfying film.

Somerset Slight

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Such high hopes I had for this film. Specifically because it comes from the writer-director-star team responsible for 1995's intriguing and sexy "Angels and Insects." And for most of its first half, "Up at the Villa" seems about to match the promise of that earlier film. In "Villa," Kristin Scott Thomas once again plays a sophisticated yet penniless Englishwoman who's reluctantly attracted to a married man (Sean Penn). But instead of merry old England, the setting now is fascist Italy, circa 1938, and instead of reacting to Darwin's Victorian ego-shattering theories, Scott-Thomas is forced to deal with being a foreigner in Mussolini land.

Covering basically the same territory as "Tea With Mussolini" as well as presenting the same insulated world of pampered, nervous British expatriates, "Villa" differs only in that it stems from the master of the well-made moral tale, W. Somerset Maugham. Even as slight a Maugham piece as the source material is, much of the movie's appeal comes from the author, not "Villa" director Philip Haas or his writer-editor wife Belinda Haas.

As in "Angels," the movie's suspense revolves around how the two main characters will deal with their mutual attraction, although this time the married man has two rivals. Penn's wealthy philanderer Rowley Flint knows that the equally wealthy but stiff James Fox (who's about to be appointed British governor of Bengal) has proposed marriage to Thomas' Mary Panton. Mary rebuffs Flint's advances, but not for the sake of appearances. Mary is intelligent enough to know that Rowley is trouble. So instead of risking all with this man she is so drawn to, she chooses to bed discreetly a passionate Austrian refugee (Jeremy Davies) when Fox must leave town for a few days.

But Mary soon wonders if she did not choose to dance with the wrong devil after all. In her eyes, the tryst was nothing more than a pleasant one-night stand. But to her partner, it was the beginning of something much deeper.

All of these complications and trysts and stiff-upper-lip quips would seem more than enough to keep a handful of movies running for two hours. But somewhere around the start of hour two, "Villa" loses steam and credibility. The acting becomes clumsy and obvious. Even the surprising chemistry between Penn and Thomas begins to lose its once-palpable edge. And the surprise twist ending that is hinted at throughout fails to materialize. It's as if Pino Donaggio's treacle-based score saps the energy from everyone involved.

Oddly, the Haases barely hint at the ever-growing dangers of Mussolini's regime. Were it not for the weak presence of a corrupt fascist officer (Massimo Ghini) who also flirts with our Mary, the movie's time and setting could have been the '50s. Perhaps the Haases purposely chose to put Il Duce in the background for fear of too many similarities to "Tea with Mussolini." In hindsight, the threat of political uncertainty might have given the character's choices in "Villa's" second hour some much-needed tension.

Dangerously devoid of sympathetic characters, "Up at the Villa" does boast some terrific performances. Penn, who at first seems so wrong for this kind of movie, becomes quite convincing as the right "wrong" man for Mary. Anne Bancroft is hilarious as a smart, busy gossip who offers Mary acerbic advice on romance. Derek Jacobi also manages to make his lesser role as a mincing queen much funnier than the blatant stereotype deserves to be. And though quite good, both Thomas and Fox could play their veddy, veddy British characters while sound asleep. Despite some interesting moments, "Up at the Villa" ultimately disappoints.

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