An adaptation of one of Somerset Maugham's lesser novellas, the Jazz-era, pre-war romantic drama "Up at the Villa" has an impressive pedigree.
Kirstin Scott Thomas -- whose stock-in-trade is intelligent, elegant romantics, outwardly reserved but inwardly passionate -- stars as a young, near-insolvent society widow visiting 1930s Tuscany to seek a monied replacement husband but holding out hope of finding true love as well.
Playing her closest friend is Anne Bancroft, in a fun role as a lush and gossipy dowager who calls everyone "ducky," and who knows what it means to marry for money. She says of her highborn husband, "He was so ugly he frightened the horses! But he was titled, rich and Italian."
Scott Thomas' best prospective spouse is James Fox ("Mickey Blue Eyes"), an ever-so-prim and polite dullard who is too British to even touch her when he proposes. She ask for some time to think about it.
And Sean Penn is the blunt -- and married -- American playboy whose rakish chivalry provides our heroine an ill-advised form of carnal temptation as she uses her reprieve from becoming a stiff-upper-lip wife to play at being adventurous, leading to a suicide, blackmail and political intrigue.
Directed by Philip Haas ("Angels & Insects") with an eye for beauty, scenery (it is Tuscany, after all) and danger, "Villa" is a modestly savory story with two unfortunately significant flaws that quickly derail it.
The first comes in the wake of Scott Thomas' overnight tryst with an Austrian war refugee (Jeremy Davies, "Saving Private Ryan"), penniless musician who she invites to the villa she's renting (with what's left of the fortune her late husband gambled away) out of loneliness and sympathy for his poverty, hunger and plight.
The tentative but easily agitated young man misinterprets her intentions and comes calling the next night, too, speaking of love -- and ends up killing himself in her bedroom when he's rebuffed.
This leads to an unnecessarily complicated cover-up (the truth minus the sex would have sufficed for explanation) that involves hiding the body and blackmailing the goose-stepping local prefect (Italian actor Massimo Ghini) after Penn is mistakenly arrested for murder. (Strangely, when "Villa" turns dangerous is also becomes dull somehow.)
The other flaw is that Sean Penn is badly miscast. The man's a great actor, but his character's whispery Ivy League accent and roguish aristocratic airs fit him like a rented tuxedo. Since the story turns on Scott Thomas trying mightily to resist her feelings for him -- especially after he comes to her rescue with the aforementioned cover-up plan -- it's kind of hard to swallow the romance when he's so unconvincing.
The movie is certainly handsome. Its sense of place (views, villages, architecture) and time (costumes, cars, fantastic jazz) is impeccable. Haas also brings to life the lightly spirited, drama-seeking atmosphere of the idled high society among whom the story takes place. But the chemistry between Penn and Scott Thomas -- the heart of the movie -- is insignificant at best. There isn't desire enough there to believe either of them would do something foolish for love.