By Indiewire | Indiewire April 21, 2000 at 2:0AM
A Dilapidated "Villa," Maugham Story Still Bad After All These
by Brandon Judell
It's been said it's easier to make a great film from a bad novel than from a
prodigious one. If so, director Philip Haas and his wife writer/editor
Belinda have certainly picked the right source material.
"Up at the Villa," which was serialized in three issues of Redbook back in
1941, is among the most minor of the famed W. Somerset Maugham's
outpourings. As Ted Morgan notes in his bio of the author, the novella was
"scorched by the critics." New Republic: "His worst novel." Newsweek: "It
could have been dictated while Maugham was talking in his sleep." The
Nation: "As unmitigated a specimen of fictional drivel [as to appear] under
respectable authorship within living memory. [It] might be flatly dismissed
as the latest triumph of servant girls' literature." Maugham himself was on
the side of those crucifying him, at least this time: "It's the only thing
I've ever done for money. I'm ashamed ever to have done it."
These assessments didn't stop Warner Brothers from buying the rights for
$30,000 back then and hiring Christopher Isherwood to get a script out of
the hackwork. He failed, admitting he'd come up with "a bad script from a
The rather unbelievable near-insulting tale takes place in the Florence of
1938 just as the Fascists were beginning to starch their black shirts and
take over power. The wealthy Anglo-American expatriate community, which was
gaily celebrating its ability to spend its days doing nothing but kicking up
its heels in elaborate, rented-out estates, was indifferent to the political
chaos breeding at its heels.
Into this merriment drops Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a lovely but
naive Brit whose alcoholic, cheating and violent spouse had recently died in
a car crash that wounded an innocent tree. Now, free and in poor financial
straits, she's out to wed Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), a sweet, dry man 25
years her senior who's about to become the Governor of Bengal. Well, you
certainly can't beat a future Governor of Bengal for a lifetime of security.
Lord knows I've tried.
Anyway, just as Mary is sure her life is set, the self-consciously
provocative, grisly-mouthed Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft) invites
her to a party. There at the festivities are two men who will transform
Mary1s future. The insouciant Rowley Flint (Sean Penn) is a magnetic playboy
escaping a loveless marriage who'd like nothing less than to work his charms
on the pretty widow. Rowley's enticing bravado instead scares the attracted
Mary into the arms of the impoverished Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies), a lousy
violinist, poor dresser and Austrian refugee -- and she screws him out of
By the next night, Karl is dead, Rowley is helping Mary hide his body, and
the head of the local Fascists is out to find the truth. Oh, no! Do you
smell a scandal? It1s more likely the odor emanating from the screenplay.
Not even Sean Penn can save dialogue like: "Marry your aging empire builder
and be damned!" or "I'm a good-time guy. I could never give you a
Kristin Scott Thomas is meanwhile saddled with: "I'm not going to be one of
your moments" and "Oh, Rowley, I couldn't be with a man like you. I need
someone I can depend on."
Bancroft, with her second-rate Dame Maggie Smith imitation, does get to
induce a chuckle now and then as when she mourns the lack of fun people left
in Florence: "Soon there'll only be Sodomites and middle-aged lesbians
left." But since her larger-than-life Princess is stuck in a film filled
with paper-thin caricatures, Bancroft often comes off as gaudy and
Penn, on the other hand, trying to be Cary Grant and failing, provides a
shifting accent and an anemic presence, his first faltering screen
performance in over a decade. There's just no charisma between him and Scott
Thomas who appears tired throughout the film.
Not as tired though as Paul Brown's costumes which look like escapees from
very bland couches. His gowns are misshapen, the men's ties crooked, and the
hairdos a mixed bag. The hats, however, do have their moments in the sun.
Maurizio Calvesi's drab cinematography doesn't. His lighting is dreadful.
Not since "Day of the Dead" have so many attractive people come off looking
so garish. Add Ms. Haas' stilted editing, Mr. Haas' awkward mis-staging of
almost every scene, plus Pino Donaggio's music which is a perfect fit for a
TV miniseries starring Jaclyn Smith, and you have a mildly entertaining film
that will be embraced by insomniacs, fans of Fabio, and admirers of Italian