The highfalutin soap operas in W. Somerset Maugham's fiction earned him a huge reading public in his day and made him a favorite of movie producers on both sides of the Atlantic. Maugham's stories and novels -- every one stuffed full of romance, deceit and tragedy -- have inspired nearly 50 motion pictures. Of Human Bondage was filmed three times, most notably the 1934 version with Leslie Howard as the sensitive cripple and Bette Davis as the sluttish vixen who destroys him. Since 1928 Rain has been adapted four times, and The Razor's Edge, Vessel of Wrath and The Painted Veil twice each. Decades before Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins committed their deeper thoughts to paper, Maugham (1874-1965) was the pop novelist's model for acidic dialogue and evildoings among the beautiful and the damned.
The latest Maugham adaptation, Up at the Villa, probably won't win any Oscars, and even the 1984 take on The Razor's Edge, starring a suddenly serious Bill Murray as a damaged World War I veteran searching for truth, may outrank it in terms of dramatic emotion. But director Philip Haas (Angels and Insects) and a glamorous international cast manage to elevate this lesser story by one of the 20th-century's lesser "serious" novelists above trash-movie level. Certainly there are a few moments when the famous Maughamian banter rises to classic status, as when Sean Penn, playing a rakish playboy, announces: "The devil's a sportsman; he takes care of his own."
Villa, written in 1940 (and kicking around the movie studios ever since), unfolds in a typical Maugham setting: gorgeous Florence in 1938, where delusional English and American expatriates carelessly dance the night away in fancy dress, largely unaware that Hitler is gearing up for war and Mussolini's fascist thugs are patrolling the back alleys of their adopted city. The heroine, Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), is more blinkered than most. A beautiful young widow whose ne'er-do-well husband left her penniless, she now relies on the kindness of wealthy friends and finds herself seriously considering a loveless marriage to a stuffy but well-heeled British diplomat (James Fox) who's old enough to be her father. With bank balances and dinner parties to consider, Mary simply doesn't have time to think about trifles like World War II.
She also isn't above the occasional one-night stand. In this case, she takes pity on a shy and shabby Austrian refugee named Karl (Jeremy Davies), invites him up to her borrowed villa in Fiesole, overlooking Florence, and promptly beds him. Talk about fiddling while Rome (or Florence) burns. Karl, it turns out, was the ham-handed violinist at the dinner party Mary attended earlier in the evening. Unfortunately for them both, their roll in the hay leads to a gunshot, curiosity on the part of the jealous local fascist party chief (Massimo Ghini) and a desperate alliance between Mary and Penn's feckless womanizer, who comes equipped with the unlikely handle Rowley Flint. Will Mary wake up now and take responsibility for her indiscretions? For her future? Will she marry for convenience or search for true love? Will the swarthy Black Shirts lay their spaghetti forks down long enough to throw everyone in jail?
Drenched in overheated romance, decadence and lightweight political intrigue, Up at the Villa clanks along for almost two hours in pursuit of answers to such questions. But its momentary delights have very little to do with the heroine's evolving social philosophy or her elastic moral sense. For one thing, the movie's most enjoyable character is probably the jaded American party hostess, played by a silvery Anne Bancroft. This world-weary mercenary calls herself Princess San Ferdinando because she once got her talons into a minor Italian "nobleman," and her entire view of life is to drink champagne, take the money and run. Maugham devotees will recognize her as that author's stock-in-trade; so will readers of Danielle Steele and like-minded literary giants. Dripping in feathers, fur and diamonds (here's to costume designer Paul Brown), Bancroft plays the princess to the hilt, providing cheap thrills, via bitchy repartee, at every turn. Thankfully screenwriter Belinda Haas, the director's wife, knows when to improve on Maugham's bons mots and when to leave them alone.
As for the principals, Up at the Villa does not exactly provide them with the richest dramatic opportunities. The doomed heroine whom Scott Thomas portrayed in The English Patient was a far more magnetic presence (in a far more appealing romance) than Mary proves to be, and Penn, for all his terrific work in recent films such as Dead Man Walking and Sweet and Lowdown, doesn't quite fit. The classic Maugham hero, polished and ruthless or tender and vulnerable, calls, in the first case, for a cruelly handsome type, and in the second, for a certain throwaway charm. But despite his natty wardrobe and calculated sangfroid, Penn doesn't summon up quite the right image. Previous Maugham movies featured the likes of Tyrone Power, George Sanders and Laurence Harvey; Penn just feels wrong here.
Apparently director Haas is crazy about literature. His previous films include adaptations of Paul Auster's The Music of Chance, A.S. Byatt's Angels and Insects and John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges. He makes an honorable, heartfelt effort of bringing Up at the Villa to the screen, but it's a plodding piece of business that only now and then transcends the ordinary.
Up at the Villa. Directed by Philip Haas. With Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn and James Fox. Rated PG-13.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.