- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2000

Kristin Scott Thomas seems to possess one of the classier sensibilities, not to mention profiles, in contemporary film acting.

Admirers can add "Up at the Villa" as a choice romantic showcase for Miss Scott Thomas, surprisingly enhanced by Sean Penn's sneaky and amusing emergence as a debonair, well-tailored suitor.

The heroine, Mary Panton (an unfortunate surname), is a genteel but penniless English widow residing temporarily in the country estate near Florence owned by off-screen friends. (The actual residence, Villa Cetinale, can be found closer to Siena.)

Though not technically another adulterous love story, "Villa" reunites the leading lady with the director of "Angels & Insects," Philip Haas, still adept at exploiting her refinement, vulnerability and submerged ardor in oddly compromising circumstances.

"Villa" also proves a diverting follow-up to last year's "Tea With Mussolini," which evoked Florence in the late 1930s. Moviegoers who looked forward to a return trip have a similar time-traveling and picturesque opportunity.

Mary is urged, especially by Anne Bancroft as Princess San Ferdinando (no kidding), the resident dowager of the Anglo-American expatriate community, to accept the marriage proposal of an eminently respectable widower, James Fox as British diplomat Sir Edgar Swift (another facetious surname).

While brooding about this offer, which certainly would liquidate her debts and guarantee security, Mary meets the gallant rascal played by Mr. Penn, Yankee playboy and estranged husband Rowley Flint, at a party.

Though attracted, she vows not to fall for another footloose charmer, evidently the type exemplified by her late, beloved, improvident husband.

While observing caution signs with Rowley, Mary takes rash and calamitous erotic pity on a refugee met at the same party: Jeremy Davies as a pathetic and eventually ignoble Austrian youth called Karl Richter. Offended when Mary declines to continue their relationship beyond a tender one-night stand, he gets abusive.

Correctly surmising that Rowley could be resourceful in a jam, she pleads with him to help extricate her from the Richter mess.

Though startled by the circumstances, he agrees. In the aftermath, Rowley becomes a target of the local police chief (and fascist point man) Beppino Leopardi, played with ominous elegance by Massimo Ghini, a cast member from "Tea With Mussolini."

The heroine is obliged to reciprocate the hero's good deed, lest he rot in a fascist jail, and encourage the jailer to make advances. By the time Mary formulates a rescue for Rowley, she has a pretty good idea whose company would suit her best, even if long-term guarantees are a little shaky.

The exposition seems to drift until a scene in which Miss Scott Thomas confides to Mr. Penn, describing the state of dependency she faces as a fashionable but impoverished widow.

Suddenly, her emotional gravity seems to sharpen and dignify the entire picture. That sensation never quite dissipates, even when the plot requires Mary to go weirdly bonkers while condescending to comfort time-bomb Karl.

"Up at the Villa" gets away with what seems an outrageous gambit: Mr. Penn and Miss Scott Thomas as romantic-comedy soul mates.

***

TITLE: "Up at the Villa"

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Philip Haas

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

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