Bloated, pompous, tedious and shallow, the first hour or so of Philip Haas’ “Up at the Villa” bears an uncanny resemblance to the high society characters it portrays. Fortunately, the film, set in a Florence, Italy just on the cusp of WWII, recovers nicely, but not completely once it finally embarks on its tale. The titular villa, a sprawling mansion and garden just at the edge of one of Florence’s rougher neighborhoods, are all that remain to lovely young widow Mary (Kirsten Scott Thomas). Mary’s actual finances don’t match up to her doe-eyed beauty, but then few things can, as the men clamoring for her attention would attest.
Yet, although she’s asked for a few days to think it over, the willowy beauty is all but convinced that she’ll accept the marriage proposal of Sir Edward (James Fox.) It ain’t love, but it is status, loyalty, and above all, security, as her socially connected best friend and mentor Princess San Fernardino (Anne Bancroft) constantly reminds her. Two events threaten to disrupt her play it safe strategy, however. The first is meeting Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), a roguish, wealthy, married American who falls for Mary faster than fashion sense in the Fascist era. Try as he might — and he does throughout the film — Rowley can’t seem to convince Mary to break it off with her stodgy British suitor and follow her heart with him on a train to…anywhere. Frustrated as he is by her denial, however, Penn’s never quite convincing Rowley aids the frazzled woman after her pity-induced spontaneous one night stand with a downtrodden but seemingly innocent Austrian refugee turns into a potentially scandalous suicide. Here, finally, is what the entire first hour was building towards…and it clearly shouldn’t have taken that long to get here. Here, too, is where “Up at the Villa” finally gains some traction, although by now, you’ll be using toothpicks with which to prop your eyelids open. As Mussolini’s black-clad Fascists, representative of the so-called “New Italy” but in reality pathetic imitators of Hitler’s monsters, begin drawing the curtain on the Florence its wealthy ex-patriots love, Rowley risks his neck for Mary to cover up the tragedy, while she engages in a little hardball herself to nip the growing investigation into the killing in the bud. The film gets better here — who’d a thunk she had it in her — but a tense, action-packed thriller this ain’t. As such, in spite of the life and death stakes involved, “Up at the Villa” never pulls you to the edge of your seat. Instead, its languid pace invites you to do what its pampered characters do best: sit back and relax. While this may be a pleasant way to pass a holiday weekend, it doesn’t exactly make for a riveting film watching experience.