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[whitespace] Sean Penn, Kristin Scott Thomas
In Like Flint: Rowley Flint (Sean Penn) makes a misguided play for widowed and broke Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas) after a dinner party in 'Up at the Villa.'

Widow Dressing

Kristin Scott Thomas gets involved with three suitors 'Up at the Villa'

By Richard von Busack

IN THEIR PREVIOUS FILM, Angels and Insects, the Haases (director Philip Haas, writer Belinda Haas) tried to re-imagine the Victorian experience, a chilly milieu poisoned by the sting of incest. Their newest film, Up at the Villa, again stars Kristin Scott Thomas, who always seems to be acting under duress (which is not necessarily a bad thing). This time, the Haases revisit the world of the 1940s movie melodrama. Certainly Scott Thomas has the timing of an old movie star. In a moonlit garden, her Mary Panton gives what's supposed to be a blurted-out account of herself. She tells her tragic story with the precise diction, studied pauses and lack of surface discomfiture of Greer Garson in her prime. And Sean Penn gets to tell off a Fascist at a fancy dinner party while winking at the offended man--trying to rally up the old Bogart "I'm only out for myself" insouciance.

Mary, a down-on-her-luck British widow, is staying in a friend's villa in Florence, Italy, right after the Munich crisis in 1938, when the beginning of WWII was delayed for a few years by some last-minute British diplomacy--and the handy use of Czechoslovakia as a pawn. One such diplomat, the kindly but dust-dry Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), has just proposed marriage to Mary, whom he's known since childhood. Giving the younger girl some time to think it over, Edgar leaves on another assignment. While he's gone, Mary attends a party and encounters a smooth rotter named Rowley Flint (Penn), who volunteers to escort the young lady back to her villa since the streets are unsafe. Intrigued by his attractiveness but repelled by his cruel frankness, Mary slaps him and heads home alone. On the way, she meets a young man with whom she decides to have one last fling before embarking on her planned loveless marriage with Sir Edgar. No real movie fan needs to guess that this one-night stand will have terrible repercussions.

Up at the Villa is based on a short novel by W. Somerset Maugham, who once was reckoned as the author most adapted by the movies, more so than Dumas or Stevenson, even. Naturally this was before Stephen King. Maugham, who once famously described himself as "first among second-raters," shows why here. His plot machinery isn't hidden by the acting of Penn and Scott Thomas. Penn's Lee Harvey Oswald smirk is hardly sweetened by his evening clothes; he's not my idea of a matinee idol. Mary is the most complex part Scott Thomas has done to date. Underneath the proper, mannered English lady is a dependent, self-deluding woman--not a mix most actresses would consider attractive, but a welcome risk for Scott Thomas. And yet the film suffers from an old-fashioned plot--the revelation of a pistol that will go off as scheduled later; the police deciding to frisk Rowley at exactly the right moment--and some strangely stilted dialogue that sounds like a wiseguy gone to finishing school. ("You are an almost perfect specimen of the genus 'peach,' " Rowley says to Mary). Up at the Villa is a rebuilt antique with so many new parts that what remains isn't authentic even to its artificial style.

Up at the Villa (PG-13; 115 min.), directed by Philip Haas, written by Belinda Haas, based on the novella by W. Somerset Maugham, photographed by Maurizio Calvesi and starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn and James Fox, opens Friday at the Park in Menlo Park and at Los Gatos Cinema in Los Gatos.

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From the May 4-10, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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