Up at the Villa

“Up at the Villa” takes place in 1930s Italy, just before the Nazis came on the scene, at a time when the rich folks sat around drinking and saying things like, “Morning is my favorite time here,” to which someone would respond, “Yes, it is quite lovely.” Sounds awful to me, though I guess the whole Nazi thing probably wasn’t any better.

Our heroine is the lovely Mary (Kristin Scott Thomas), formerly rich but now living in a borrowed villa and trying to maintain appearances. An older gentlemen named Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox) proposes marriage to her, and this being a society in which love is not a prerequisite for marriage (money is), she considers it while he’s away on business. He leaves his gun with her, though, because some of the incoming refugees, fleeing the Nazis, have proven to be rather dangerous of late.

At a party, Mary meets Rolly Flint (Sean Penn), a cocksure American who likes her and thinks she should marry someone she loves. Can’t be him, though, ’cause he’s already married, though that doesn’t seem to inhibit his lifestyle. Upset at his advances and at the confusing notion of “love and marriage,” Mary flees the scene and nearly runs over one of the aforementioned refugees, Karl (Jeremy Davies). Feeling some sense of reckless abandonment, she takes him home with her, gives him a nice meal, and sleeps with him. To her, it’s a one-night stand. To him, it’s a relationship, and he’s crushed to the point of suicide when he learns it’s not.

Rolly and Mary, legally in the clear but seeking to avoid scandal — for surely there is nothing worse in a gossipping society of rich people than scandal — seek to cover up Karl’s deeds. Which of course DOES lead to legal troubles, as well as a scandal.

Karl calls Mary “idle, sensual and worthless,” and he’s right. But so is everyone else. This is a class of people who do nothing all day, and feel very good about it. Kristin Scott Thomas lends Mary a certain modern, comfortable quality. We can buy that she’s in pre-war Europe, but at the same time, she’s a ’90s gal we can relate to.

Anne Bancroft is quite good, as usual, as Princess San Ferdinando, Mary’s adviser and friend. The question is, will she remain loyal when the scandal breaks?

In a way, this is a romantic film with just a few thriller elements put in for effect. But how romantic is it? Mary falls for a married man, a man she cannot have. Romance may not always be the best solution, but we often go with it anyway — which perhaps just makes it all the more romantic (or foolish, depending on your point of view).

The film avoids quaintness, thank heavens, and manages to be down-to-earth even while showing us all these unbelievably puffed-up rich idiots. Sean Penn helps a lot in that area, keeping it real while still drawing us into this unfamiliar world (though Penn does occasionally seem aloof and distanced from the proceedings, like he’s hiding more than his character is).

“Up at the Villa” is interesting, if nothing else, and at times truly engrossing. Thomas, for all her likability, can’t quite carry the thing by herself, and it sometimes gets bogged down. But it has a resonance nonetheless, and often a strong one.

B- (; PG-13, some minor violence, discreet sexual dialogue.)