Published May 01, 2000Has there ever been a more mismatched on-screen couple than Sean Penn and Kristin Scott Thomas? They're the romantic leads in Up at the Villa, and it looks as if they performed their roles separately and were then put together digitally in post-production. Both actors have certainly done better work in the past, although I still don't understand why Kristin Scott Thomas seems to be such a sought-after leading woman. Like Michelle Pfeiffer (a similarly overrated star) her screen presence is too posed and porcelain to warm up to. Penn doesn't acquit himself well either - his heart isn't in this role as a roguish American charmer, and it shows. He never quite establishes the right vocal rhythms for his character.
This is the fourth collaboration of husband and wife team Philip and Belinda Haas (he directs, she writes), and they've carved out a niche for themselves doing literary adaptations that have ranged from the very adept (The Music of Chance), to the disastrous (The Blood Oranges). Here, the source is a novella by W. Somerset Maugham, and the results are mixed. It takes place in pre-war Florence, Italy where the presence of those pesky black-shirts isn't yet much of a disruption to the British expatriate community. They attend well-heeled parties overflowing with champagne, and lounge about in gardens, drinking gin and tonic and listening to the buzz of the cicadas. The first note of disruption comes when playboy Rowley Flint (Penn) makes a pass at the almost-engaged Mary Panton (Scott Thomas). Things get dicey when, later the same evening, Mary uncharacteristically ends up between the sheets with a lucky Austrian refugee (Jeremy Davies, in a memorable role), who happened to wander onto the grounds of her villa.
There are some prickly complications that ensue from Mary's tryst (somebody gets shot, but not the way you'd expect), and it makes for some nice tension in the middle of a what is otherwise a fairly lackluster movie. Although all of the various moral dilemmas are cleverly set up, they ultimately have to be resolved through the relationship between the two leads, and their aforementioned lack of chemistry doesn't help. I can see that Philip and Belinda Haas were going for something along the lines of Casablanca (there's a close-up of Kristen Scott Thomas at the end that's an homage to Ingrid Bergman), but what they've created is just a pleasant diversion for the Merchant-Ivory crowd. I'm sure this target audience will leave the movie all aglow with conversation about the sets, the costumes, and how much they'd love to summer in Italy this year.