Up at the Villa

USA/UK 1999

Reviewed by John Mount


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Florence, 1938. Penniless widow Mary Panton lives in a borrowed villa and socialises with the expatriate Anglo-American community. Sir Edgar Swift, 25 years her senior, proposes marriage. Mary asks for time to decide. Sir Edgar leaves Mary his revolver for her protection. Princess San Ferdinando urges Mary to marry Sir Edgar, soon to be Governor of Bengal, and suggests she take a lover if she grows bored. At the Princess's dinner party Mary receives the unwelcome attentions of Fascist officer Beppino Leopardi and meets charming American playboy Rowley Flint. She is attracted to Rowley but rejects his advances when he escorts her home. Impulsively, she has sex with Karl Richter, an Austrian refugee. Mary rebuffs Karl when he returns the next night. Richter shoots himself with Sir Edgar's gun.

Rowley helps Mary dump Karl's body; he is arrested by Leopardi. Mary steals incriminating files on Leopardi from the Princess; in exchange for the files, Leopardi releases Rowley. Mary parts from Rowley. On being told what has happened, Sir Edgar sticks to his proposal of marriage but explains that he will have to resign. Mary rejects him. Later, she runs into Rowley.


Director Philip Haas and his co-writer editor and wife Belinda Haas produced some interesting literary adapations during the 90s, notably The Music of Chance and Angels and Insects. Coolly intelligent and distinguished by understated observation, both films were effective in teasing out the more unsettling aspects of their original source material. But for all the directorial polish on show, the Haases' films have tended to start promisingly but fall frustratingly short of expectations. The same is true of their latest film, based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel: Up at the Villa is perfectly enjoyable fare but not the stunning period drama one feels the Haases are capable of.

In late-40s Hollywood Christopher Isherwood failed to write a screen adaptation of Maugham's novel because its tale of a young widow caught between financial obligation and romantic desire was considered too sexually explicit. Having finally reached the screen, the film ironically seems too restrained, its handling of the novel too discreet to make much impact on a contemporary audience. This said, Haas shows a great deal of delicacy in his dissection of the emotional turmoil Mary suffers after her impetuous one-night stand leads her to the brink of ruin. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a customarily convincing portrayal of a romantic Englishwoman chafing against the double standards of upper-class society. And what threatens to be a clichéd romance with Sean Penn actually sputters into life, in large part thanks to Penn's performance.

Up at the Villa is less effective when augmenting the scant political background of the novel with a more explicit historical context - the film's depiction of Italian fascism, for instance, is obvious and lacks insight. Similarly some of the minor characters are portrayed a little too broadly (although Derek Jacobi's cameo as a Quentin Crisp-like Lucky Leadbetter is strangely engaging and Anne Bancroft gives a commanding queen-bee performance as the Princess). Unsurprisingly, given the consummate visual style of Haas' earlier films, the lush Tuscan settings are expertly photographed, framing perfectly the sybaritic lifestyle of the expat community. Haas imbues this idyllic setting with a slow-burning sense of foreboding and occasionally hints at a more lurid, pliable morality under the genteel surface. But, like Neil Jordan's marginally more successful The End of the Affair, he fails to pull off the trick of depicting the period without lapsing into stiff-lipped, straight-backed mannerisms and creaky lines of dialogue.


Philip Haas
Geoff Stier
Belinda Haas
Based on the novella by
W. Somerset Maugham
Director of Photography
Maurizio Calvesi
Belinda Haas
Production Designer
Paul Brown
Pino Donaggio
©Mirage Enterprises and Intermedia Film Equities Ltd
Production Companies
Intermedia Films and October Films present a Mirage-Stanley Buchtal production
Executive Producers
Sydney Pollack
Arnon Milchan
Stanley Buchthal
Co-executive Producers
Guy East
Nigel Sinclair
David Brown
Associate Producers
Davien Littlefield
Guido Cerasuolo
Production Supervisor
Guido Cerasuolo
Production Co-ordinator
Laura Cappato
UK Co-ordinator
Julia Overton
Production Manager
Gianluca Leurini
Location Manager
Enrico Ballarin
Post-production Supervisor
Susan Lazarus
Assistant Directors
Luca Lachin
Marco Pettini
Yozo Tokuda
Eileen Gorman
Script Supervisor
Rachel Griffiths
Celestia Fox
Shaila Rubin
Camera Operator
Roberto Ruzzolini
Steadicam Operators
Marco Pieroni
Alessandro De Pascalis
Special Effects
Roberto Ricci
Riccardo Ricci
Claudio Quaglietti
Silvano Scasseddu
Art Directors
Anna Deamer
Livia Borgognoni
Anna Deamer
Set Decorator
Gianfranco Fumagalli
Storyboard Artist
David Orlandelli
Costume Designer
Paul Brown
Wardrobe Supervisors
Catherine Buyse
Richard Pointing
Chief Make-up Artist
Maurizio Silvi
Make-up Artists
Joan Giacomin
Rosario Prestopino
Federica Jacoponi
Laura Borzelli
Gianbattista Graziano
Leonarda Paglietta
Micaela Alleyson
Chief Hairdresser
Aldo Signoretti
Ferdinando Merolla
Mirella Ginnoto
Enzo Mastrantonio
Massimiliano Duranti
Carla Indoni
Marina Marin
Giorgio Gregorini
Rita Luciani
Paolo Franceschi
Carla Carisi
Rita Cecchini
Title Design
Doyle Partners
Cineric Inc
Music Performed by
Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by
Gianfranco Plenizio
Music Supervisor
Tim Sexton
Music Co-ordinator
Karen Kloack
Music Editor
Annette Kudrak
Johann Strauss's "Schatz-Walzer"
Karole Armitage
Production Sound Mixer
Ken Weston
Additional Sound Mixer
John Midgley
Sam Kaufman
Dave Moreno
Larry Spotts
Bob Olari
Haythan Hassanein
Re-recording Mixers
Rick Ash
Franco Morone
Supervising Sound Editor
Richard King
Dialogue Editors
James Matheny
Hugo Weng
Sound Effects Recordist
Eric Potter
Greg Steele
David Humphries
Jens Christensen
Daryn Roven
Supervising Editor:
Kimberly Harris
Linda Folk
Christopher Flick
Zane Bruce
Joe Sabella
Brian Ruberg
Mark Pappas
Kristin Scott Thomas
Mary Panton
Sean Penn
Rowley Flint
Anne Bancroft
Princess San Ferdinando
James Fox
Sir Edgar Swift
Jeremy Davies
Karl Richter
Derek Jacobi
Lucky Leadbetter
Massimo Ghini
Beppino Leopardi
Dudley Sutton
Harold Atkinson
Lorenza Indovina
Roger Hammond
Colin Mackenzie
Clive Merrison
Archibald Grey
Linda Spurrier
Hilda Grey
Ben Aris
Colonel Trail
Anne Ridler
Lady Trail
Anne Bell
Beryl Bryson
Barbara Hicks
Lulu Good
Gianfranco Barra
Gretchen Given
Isa MacKenzie
Mary Shipton
Pierantonio 'Noki' Novara
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
10,426 feet
115 minutes 51 seconds
Dolby Digital
Colour by
Technicolor, NY
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011