EW Staff
May 12, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Up at the Villa

Current Status
In Season
115 minutes
Sean Penn, Kristin Scott-Thomas
Philip Haas
Intermedia Films
Historical, Romance

We gave it a C-

One does so hate when Fascists cause unpleasantness at dinner parties, doesn’t one? The nattering expatriates foxtrotting through Tuscany while Mussolini’s thugs get impertinent in Up at the Villa might as well live down the road from the dithering matrons of last year’s addled ”Tea With Mussolini.” But politics is almost an afterthought in this balky, attenuated film, in which Kristin Scott Thomas once again plays a cool lady who needs a good melting and director Philip Haas heralds a transformative moment by intently observing a fly on a windowpane.

Coming from the filmmaker who gave us the scintillating ”Angels and Insects” (also starring Scott Thomas), bug cameos may be expected. But unlike the strong spell of eroticism and Victorian perversity in that 1995 adaptation of an A.S. Byatt novella, this dramatization of a novel by W. Somerset Maugham never settles on a tone, either about love or war.

Porcelain-fine Scott Thomas drifts as widowed Mary Panton, sleepwalking through life while holed up in a borrowed villa. Oh, the conundrums she must contemplate in her teacup! There’s an offer of marriage from an older diplomatic chap (James Fox) with a lip so stiff as to appear paralyzed with Botox; there’s her meddling neighbor to cosset, a gossipy American expat wed to Italian royalty (and, as declaimed in rouge and rictus smile by Anne Bancroft, a must-imitate for any discriminating drag queen). But she’s drawn to a married American (Sean Penn), and she’s got a crisis brewing with a grungy Austrian refugee (Jeremy Davies) whom she sleeps with out of pity, and who, when she refuses him a second night, snaps.

Whatever will Mary do? Will she ever thaw? Scott Thomas opens her lovely eyes wide, but she’s unreadable and distant, dulled in a script full of twit-speak, no matter what fire the excellent Penn ignites in her direction. That fly on the window Haas likes so much may be squeaking ”Help me!”

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