SAN FRANCISCO — More than one current movie explores the interesting plight faced by privileged people living in a time and place when their privileges are no longer in fashion.
"The Last September," which opened last weekend, portrays Anglo-Irish aristocrats failing to recognize the harsh realities of Ireland in the turbulent 1920s. And now "Up at the Villa" visits a group of Anglo-American expatriates trying to sustain romantic Italian lifestyles even as Mussolini's fascists rise in power and World War II looms on the horizon.
Coming to theaters from the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it screened as a special gala presentation, "Up at the Villa" centers on a young Englishwoman named Mary whose life has been emotionally and financially difficult since her husband's death. Her challenges will be met if she accepts the marriage proposal of an aging friend whose employment prospects - he's bound for India to be a governor - are offset by his incredibly boring personality.
Seeking one last adventure before heading off to Bengal with him, Mary spends a night with an impoverished Austrian refugee, under the misguided impression that a few hours of her charms will take the sting out of his unpleasant life. She's amazed when he shows up again the next evening, proclaiming his newfound love for her, and she's astonished when her hesitation leads him to threaten a desperate, perhaps violent, retaliation.
Things go from bad to worse, and within hours she's faced with enormous guilt and - even worse in her eyes - the possibility of a public scandal. There are only two people who might be able to help her: a fascist officer she despises and a dashing American whose assistance might actually add to her burdens.
Based on a novella by W. Somerset Maugham, this tale of competing loves and thwarted passions has many old-fashioned elements, from understated British dialogue to familiar contrasts between sophisticated Europeans and jaunty American sensibilities. In a sensible decision, director Philip Haas has filmed it in a pleasantly old-fashioned way, concentrating more on visual beauty - vivid colors, attractive settings, graceful camera movements - than on the story's sordid undertones. Sex and violence are integral parts of the plot, but it's been a long while since a movie has evoked them with more eloquent restraint.
The cast is excellent, headed by Kristin Scott Thomas as Mary and Sean Penn as her American friend. James Fox is perfect as the old-line British fianc, and as a jaded princess, Anne Bancroft gives an impeccably tuned performance that makes Maggie Smith's in "The Last September" seem flimsy by comparison.
In all, "Up at the Villa" is a splendid place to spend an evening.
* Not rated; contains mildly filmed sex and violence.
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