"Up at the Villa" is genteel but ultimately unnecessary entertainment, one that's at least easy on the eyes before it vanishes entirely from the filmgoer's consciousness.
Philip Haas, whose pictorial sense of period is as lush as Merchant and Ivory's with a bit more zest, has adapted W. Somerset Maugham's much-loved novella with an eye toward capturing the simmering sensuality of Italy just before World War II.
He's done this with taste and refinement, but without the sexual heat or tautness of a juicy crime thriller that has made Maugham's book a favorite over the years.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays Mary Panton, a beautiful young English widow who has taken a 17th-century villa just outside Florence for the summer in 1938. Mary is on the verge of making a good, if loveless, match to the presumptive Governor of Bengal (James Fox).
But her bid for status and economic security (her late husband left her penniless) is marred by her introduction to a charismatic American bounder named Rowley Flint (Sean Penn) and a brief but cataclysmic encounter with a poor violinist (Jeremy Davies).
"Up at the Villa," which was written by Haas' wife Belinda, recalls movies such as "The Letter," but Scott Thomas lacks Bette Davis' impulsive fire that made that romantic thriller such a compelling portrayal of hidden sexual intrigue.
Scott Thomas makes a wan flower of a heroine, whose baby-blue crepe dresses threaten to engulf her delicate, birdlike persona. In an odd performance, Penn tamps down his innate animal energy and adopts a strangely indeterminate version of Locust Valley lockjaw; his Rowley isn't a smoothly dangerous rake as much as a poor man's Cary Grant.
Like Haas' previous films ("Angels and Insects" and "The Music of Chance") "Up at the Villa" is luscious to look at -- a shot of tomatoes ripening voluptuously next to a neatly manicured tennis court is just one example of Haas' extravagant visual sensibility.
But at the end of this admittedly very beautiful day, there's not particular reason why "Up at the Villa" had to be a movie.
As with "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which is also recalled in the film's setting and slightly decadent themes, "Up at the Villa" is one of those stories that provides tempting fodder for directors and actors, but probably would have been better served by staying on the printed page.
The film is fine for filmgoers satisfied with splendid scenery and a mildly diverting tale, but for real heat, Maugham still knows best.
'Up at the Villa'
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft
Directed by Philip Haas Rated PG-13 (thematic elements)
Running time 115 minutes
Released by USA Films
Sun score: **