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UP AT THE VILLA

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Davies
Director: Philip Haas
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 1.78:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: USA Home Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 115 Minutes
Release Date: October 24, 2000

Film **1/2

Up At the Villa is a lavishly produced tale set in the old English days about people with manners and the consequences of putting those manners at risk. Directed by Philip Haas, the movie is based upon the novel by classic author Somerset Maugham, is a tale of complicated romances among the upper class during the last days before the outbreak of World War II. The movie surrounds itself around a group of British expatriates in Florence.

The villa of the title is run by Thomasí character, Mary Parton. Mary is widowed woman in her mid-30s. She lost her husband to a life of gambling and alcohol abuse that resulted in his demise. She soon gets a visit from an old friend, Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), who comes to propose marriage to her. It might seem odd, but he has a good reason. He is soon to be Governor of Bengal, and if Mary accepts his proposal she will become First Lady of British Society in Calcutta. Mary is somewhat intrigued by the sudden offer, but she requests some time to think it over. She knows for sure that she isnít in love with Sir Edgar, but it does promise her a life worth living.

Mary gains some insightful knowledge on how to deal with the situation from Principessa San Ferdinando, played by Anne Bancroft. She confesses to Mary that she got married strictly for security and took in lovers on a regular basis. Not too long after the proposal, Mary meets an American named Flint (Sean Penn), who is a married man. Flint attempts to make a pass at Mary, but she turns him down, only to later have an encounter with an Austrian violinist (Jeremy Davies), who she ends up bedding that night, giving him a night to remember, which resembles a night of passion that occurred once in Principessaís life. From this point on, the story begins to take some real unexpected turns that are too neat to have me reveal.

There was a period a few years back when Hollywood was in the Jane Austen moviemaking machine, and that period has ceased for the moment, but Up at the Villa has the look and field of an Austen tale, though it is set a few dozen years down the road from when her stories took place. These are very complicated characters that Maugham had created, many of which have numerous secret agendas hidden underneath other agendas. Kristin Scott Thomas is dynamic and elegant as a woman whoís uncertain of what it is she wants, other than security and wealth in life. As for Sean Penn, I was a little let down to see him in such an underused role. Iím so used to seeing Penn in rich, multi-layered roles, and yet the role of Flint isnít played out to that length. If youíre like me, and were blown away by Pennís characterizations in such films as Carlitoís Way, Casualties of War, and especially Hurlyburly, chances are you will be slightly disappointed. 

I still praise the glamorous look to the film. Director Philip Haas gives the movie a most elegant and appropriate look and feel. Thereís certainly nothing terribly bad about the film, except that I guess I expected a little more from it than I got. Without a doubt, the well-meaning Up at the Villa gets a mixed review.

Video ***

USA Home Entertainment gives a modest transfer for this release. The anamorphic presentation is lively for most of the viewing, although I did notice some occasional grain midway through the viewing, as well what appeared to be a little color bleeding late in the film, but other than that, I found it to be a decent presentation.

Audio ***

Itís fair to note that Up at the Villa is made up of dialogue and nothing much else, so itís rather difficult to rate the audio quality. The disc includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, as well as that of a Dolby Surround 2.0 track. The 5.1 presentation does what it can, and for the most part all of the spoken words are delivered clearly and flawlessly.

Features *

Only a very brief trailer, as well as cast information and filmographies.

Summary:

Up at the Villa earns deserved credit for the good look that it has, as well as terrific work by Kristin Scott Thomas, but as mentioned earlier, I simply expected much more from the film, particularly more screen time for Pennís character to develop. A rare case of a mixed review for me.