Distant Voices, Still Lives


Fondly memorialized by bourgie nostalgists as a panoramic playground for twittering, uptight, romance-starved expats, pre-war Italy receives one of its most waxen eulogies to date in Philip Haas’s Up at the Villa (not to be confused with A Month by the Lake, which it now supplants as Most Evocatively Titled Idle-Privilege Movie). The freakishly inspired pairing of Franco Zeffirelli and Cher in last year’s crackbrained Tea With Mussolini was enough to kill the subgenre and, in the process, unwittingly reinvent it as parody. Haas’s earnest resuscitative effort suffers by comparison. Adapting a heavy-breathing Somerset Maugham novella, the director and his wife, Belinda Haas (the film’s writer and editor), have fashioned a stiff self-discovery fable both decorous and ludicrous.

Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a proper English widow living off rich friends in 1938 Florence. A crusty colonialist bigwig and longtime acquaintance (James Fox) pops the question, and in the few days she takes to mull over his proposal, Mary (comfortably installed at the lavish titular estate) finds herself reevaluating her romantic priorities—or, more to the point, her taste in men. Natty, unflappable American Rowley Flint (Sean Penn) figures in this dilemma. So does a scruffy Austrian refugee (Jeremy Davies, fidgety as ever), with whom Mary, in but one instance of her much noted generosity, shares a night of passion. “My heart was full of tenderness and pity,” the slumming patrician later explains, lip aquiver. This rationale causes the poor boy, now hopelessly enamored, to shoot himself, leaving Mary and Rowley to bond in a clumsy act of body disposal and a clumsier blackmail scheme against the local fascists.

The Haases, whose previous films (Angels and Insects, The Music of Chance) evinced a remote, unfussy sensibility, are a poor fit for the melodramatic contortions that the story demands. The actors appear not to have been directed: Scott Thomas shifts robotically from downcast introspection to weak smiles to glassy-eyed surprise, and there’s no erotic tension to speak of, not least because Penn’s performance consists of trying hard not to be noticed (and generally succeeding). By way of comic sideshow, Up at the Villa features two parts that might have been written with drag queens in mind: gossipy socialite Anne Bancroft and mascaraed “sodomite” Derek Jacobi. Both mug and preen with a touching lack of vanity, sadly unaware that, in the period-pudding camp-spectacle stakes, Cher has raised the bar beyond human means.

Another scenic quest for self-knowledge, I Dreamed of Africa bloats the real-life story of conservationist Kuki Gallmann to widescreen-travelogue proportions. After an accident puts Kuki (Kim Basinger, glazed and weirdly distant) in touch with her adventurous side (“Look at me,” she implores, “I’ve stopped growing”), our heroine flees Venice for a ranch in Kenya, accompanied by her new husband (Vincent Pérez), her son from a previous marriage, and presumably a trunkful of beauty products. (Battling wild beasts, poachers, and natural calamities, Basinger’s Kuki emerges fetchingly windswept and at worst a little flushed.) Confronted with the exotic majesty of Africa, Kuki doesn’t exactly grow so much as attain a narcotic giddiness, scribbling awestruck journal entries (which Basinger delivers in an absurdly listless monotone). Similarly anesthetized, director Hugh Hudson keeps the movie rambling and episodic, deferring to the imposing backdrop whenever possible. He stirs from his slumber only when unfathomable tragedy strikes and the opportunity for manipulation presents itself—true to form for the director of Chariots of Fire. Reaching for grief then uplift, Hudson fails to understand that his film is by nature trivializing.