A Maugham Tale of Lying and Libido … Heckart’s Farewell, Williams’ Return

A Maugham Tale of Lying and Libido

Romance, intrigue and an impulsive sexual encounter that spirals into theft, blackmail and tragedy. This is the stuff that made the novels of William Somerset Maugham famous, and here it is again, forming the basis of Up at the Villa , a new film directed by Philip Haas, written by his wife and collaborator, Belinda Haas, and set during the rise of Fascism in Florence and Tuscany on the eve of World War II. It’s not exactly on the level of such Maugham classics as The Razor’s Edge or Of Human Bondage , but it seizes the imagination, holds the attention firmly and keeps the pulse beating rapidly. Add a glamorous and polished cast, lush music, sumptuous decor, beautiful period fashions and buttery cinematography, and you’ve got a rich and satisfying movie as thrilling and sexy as it is lush.

The setting is Italy in chaos, in the same historic 1938 time frame as Franc Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini , when British and American expatriates, languishing in the touristy splendors of Michelangelo, trembled at the invasion of political terrorism, turning Florence into a sinister hotbed of suspicion, danger and Fascist violence. Still in denial of things to come, the social aristocracy turned its eyes away from street thugs, police interrogations, penniless refugees crossing the border and jobless workers looting and pillaging the lavish mountain villas, still leading a leisurely life of fancy-dress balls and champagne picnics, fueling their lazy afternoons with snobbish gossip.

In such heady company, Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a penniless English widow summering alone in a Renaissance villa, is an easy target. Having survived one tragic marriage to a husband who committed suicide and now on the verge of a second loveless marriage to a stuffy, respectable British diplomat (James Fox), Mary is practical but restless. One night at a dinner party hosted by the poison-tongued, often-married American duenna, Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft), Mary’s equilibrium is cracked by the amorous advances of three of the guests: Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), a married but charming American playboy, Beppino Leopardi (Massimo Ghini), a cruel Fascist police officer and Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies), a ragged and sensitive Austrian refugee who is ridiculed by the other guests for playing the violin badly. Mistaking Mary’s tenderness and pity for love, Richter manages to get her into bed and this one act of compassion on Mary’s part leads to a tragedy that changes her life when the rejected Richter commits suicide in her bedroom with her gun.

Desperate, she turns to the American cad to help her avoid scandal and remove the body. Reckless and irresponsible, Mr. Penn oozes oily charm in his vanilla-ice-cream suits, but as she places all of her trust in him, he changes, too, falling in love for the first time as he sinks deeper into an elaborate deception that endangers them both. As the plot thickens, they must blackmail the Fascist policeman who is closing in on them with incriminating letters they steal from the Waspish princess played by Ms. Bancroft. Weaving in and out of this feverish scenario is Sir Derek Jacobi as a mincing queen who turns out to be Mary’s most loyal ally.

In a role that seems to have been destined for Bette Davis in her prime, Kristin Scott Thomas escapes the icy image of the noble, button-down heroine she’s earned in films like The English Patient and The Horse Whisperer , alternating between primness and passion. Up at the Villa gives her a role full of dark spots. She’s shiny and brushed on the exterior, but she’s just as scheming and vengeful on the inside as she is refined. Walking a tightrope between the choice of a secure future with every advantage and sexual abandon with a ruthless adventurer, she’s a woman of surprising contrasts and a well-concealed lust for life with the power to keep you guessing. Some of the dialogue is so uncomfortably arch that the wily Mr. Penn seems to be smiling at it, but in a change of pace for which some will argue he is less than ideally suited, he is never anything less than fascinating. (He’s probably the shortest action hero since Alan Ladd, but he’s such a good actor he can make you believe he’s as dangerous as Robert Mitchum.)

For a film about shocking incidents that turn the tables on conventional morality, the teaming of this unsettling pair provides an unconventional element that makes the film doubly quirky. A damsel in distress, a hero without principles and libidos throbbing against a backdrop of Nazi bonfires and Giotto frescoes–these may not be the components to satisfy every contemporary taste. But in the midst of so many angry, bloodless films about digital effects and Wall Street psychos, a dose of Maugham and a film like Up at the Villa can be just the prescription for bringing jaded audiences back to life.

Heckart’s Farewell, Williams’ Return

If the great Eileen Heckart, the most cherished octogenarian in the American theater, is true to her word, her starring role in off-Broadway’s The Waverly Gallery at the Promenade will be her last. A game and gifted star who has provided theatergoers with some of their most cherished memories is throwing in the towel after more than half a century in the footlights. If this is her swan song, what are you waiting for? She is going out with a bang.

Playing the feisty owner of a second-rate Greenwich Village art gallery who finds herself in advancing stages of Alzheimer’s, this remarkable actress is frail, birdlike, hard of hearing, but still holding onto her ideas, her opinions and her independence. In the early stages of the tragic illness, she’s just exasperating–constantly tampering with her hearing aid, forcing everyone to repeat himself, talking incessantly over the conversations around her. Later, she winds down, like an old cylinder–her steps faltering, her speech halted. Portraying someone who refuses to go gentle into that good night–the confusion and obstinance and courage–she lights up the stage with wit and charm and alarm-clock timing.

Playwright Kenneth Lonergan writes bravely about the tragedy of a mind that leaves the body too soon and the ordeal faced by caregivers and loved ones who are just as hopelessly afflicted as the patient. The supporting cast is tremendous, but it is Eileen Heckart who makes the courage and injustice of growing old more than a routine journey of despair. If this monumental performance is a last goodbye, it’s a farewell triumph with a soulful resonance that will linger for seasons to come.

After an eight-year absence, the Welsh cabaret star Iris Williams is back at the Algonquin with a recital of love songs sung with impeccable taste and elegant phrasing. There’s a light touch here and there, but the emphasis is on seriously studied performances of works by Jerome Kern, Jimmy Dorsey, Henry Mancini, Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, and the Gershwins, in a voice that suggests a cross between Marian Anderson and Nina Simone.

Her rich contralto, pitched low with shimmering vibrato, reaches its most astonishing depths of passion on a section of eight selections by Harold Arlen that runs the gamut from playful (“Fun to Be Fooled”) to arty (“Right as the Rain”) and dreamy (“This Time the Dream’s on Me”). Ms. Williams is less interested in exploring the emotional subtexts of a song than she is in singing it straight with no chaser, which is probably why the audience laps up her Edith Piaf homage with more relish than I do. But make no mistake, she’s a classy lady with a stylish approach to singing classic theater songs. In her company there is much pleasure to be shared by all.

In the most unusual and arresting “crossover” CD since Joni Mitchell’s recent tribute to Billie Holiday, Ireland’s most celebrated classical pianist, John O’Conor, has just released a collection called My Ireland on the After 9 label (which usually limits its repertoire to cabaret and jazz). This is understandable. The dazzling technique that has made him an international star is still present, the virtuosity and polish have not diminished, but on l6 cuts with the Irish Chamber Orchestra of lighter fare like “The Last Rose of Summer,” “Danny Boy” and “Come Back to Erin” there’s a warmth and a soul permeating the music you don’t hear when Mr. O’Conor plays Beethoven.

Augmented by a blush of violins, cellos and French horns, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” brings back not only memories of heather and stone and thatched-roof cottages on the way home from every country pub from Dublin to Cork, but of great, hearty laughfests with Malachy McCourt and the wrenching sweet-sad stories of his brother Frank in Angela’s Ashes . You don’t have to be Irish to love this music, but faith and begorra, John O’Conor’s plush chords and no-nonsense sentiment without sentimentality are certain to make you wish you were.