When you open your door to strangers, you never know who might come in.
I'm not normally a fan of made for TV movies, but Maggie Smith has an excellent repertoire of films, so I thought I would give My House in Umbria a try. I was definitely glad I did. The film did not disappoint for a minute.
Facts of the Case
Emily Delahunty (Maggie Smith, Gosford Park) is a wealthy English authoress living in and running a boarding house in Umbria, Italy. She finds herself in a railway carriage with eleven other passengers; among them are an elderly British general (Ronnie Barker, The Gathering Storm) and his daughter; a young American girl, Aimee (newcomer Emmy Clarke) and her parents; and a young German photographer, Werner (Benno Fürmann The Order) and his girlfriend. Shortly into the journey, a bomb destroys their cabin, leaving only four survivors: Mrs. Delahunty, the general, Werner, and the little girl, Aimee. Emily kindly invites her fellow survivors to her villa in Umbria so they can continue recovering from their injuries. Since Aimee was orphaned in the explosion and the authorities had yet to locate her relatives, they were happy to leave her in Emily's care. The four return to her beautiful villa and quickly form a family of sorts. Then the authorities call, and say that they have found Aimee's uncle. Thomas Riversmith (Chris Cooper, Adaptation) is a prim, pedantic etymologist who is married with no children. Under the threat of losing to someone she believes to be a prick, Emily resorts to heavy drinking.
My House in Umbria, like the recent Under the Tuscan Sun, shows non-Italians living in the beautiful Italian countryside, except Maggie Smith is a much better actress then Diane Lane. Emily Delahunty is an enigmatic character, and Maggie Smith portrays that flawlessly. Based on the fashions of some of the characters, the My House in Umbria is very obviously set in present Italy, but there is a timeless romantic feel to the movie. Mainly, because we see much of the story through Emily's eyes, and that is the way she would have wanted Italy—romantic. Emily herself is a woman out of time. She listens to music from one era (which given her apparent age, she is too young to have grown up with). She dresses in clothing from another era, with a seemingly new silk ensemble complete with matching costume jewelry in every scene. Her house is an eclectic mixture of classic interiors from the 1800s to more modern artifacts (the 1950s to the '70s or so), but there is not one sign of any modern technological convenience. Emily thrives on taking care of people. She serves good food and better wine, and lots of lemonade and drinks for all. When the three fellow survivors come to her house, she finds a family that she probably never knew and becomes as devoted to Aimee as any mother would be.
The interaction between Smith and Cooper is brilliant. He is a complete and definitive foil to Emily and everything her lifestyle embodies. She is a smoking drunk who writes "bodice rippers" and believes she could seduce a much younger man. He is proper and uncomfortable in the highly romanticized environment, and he does not relate well with children. Thematically their interactions deal with alcoholism and the diminishing attractiveness of an aging woman. Even when no words pass between them, the tension can be sensed and Smith plays an extremely convincing drunk. Being the romantic that she is, she hides her sadness with alcohol, cigarettes, and make-up. At the conclusion, when she is finally happy, these three items of her ensemble are noticeably absent.
The story is told completely through the eyes of Emily Delahunty. We sympathize with the characters she wants us to sympathize with, and we dislike the characters she dislikes. The perspective of the storytelling is not to be forgotten though, Emily fills in details of the other characters lives with her own imaginations, leaving us wondering exactly what is true and what isn't. The film also alludes to Emily having a sense of foresight, or a similar sixth sense in the form of dreams; this further complicates the issue of trusting her machinations and the information she tells us both about herself and the other characters. Unfortunately, one of the major weaknesses of the film was that it delved rather markedly into a number of different themes: aging, alcoholism, family, abuse, healing, happiness…and it did only two or three of the themes justice.
In addition to a stellar cast of main characters, My House in Umbria sported an excellent cast of supporting actors. Timothy Spall (Nicholas Nickleby, The Last Samurai) brought life to Quinty, Mrs. Delahunty's butler/groundskeeper, a character that would have otherwise been rather bland. Giancarlo Giannini (Hannibal, Once Upon a Crime…) brings life to Inspector Girotti and is particularly brilliant in handling the chocolate candy (watch the film, and you will know what I mean). These are two characters of note, but the entire supporting cast is excellent and memorable. With a different cast of actors, this movie would probably have been doomed to fail. With a different set of supporting characters, it might have been okay at best. However, director Richard Loncraine made some excellent casting decisions and created a very enjoyable film from a mediocre starting point. True, I have not read the novella that My House in Umbria is based on, and I probably never will (having a long list of things to read before it) so I can't comment on the adherence to, or the quality of the film's source. Whether or not there are differences, My House in Umbria stands perfectly fine on its own feet.
The sound quality of the movie was excellent; every word spoken was clear. The largest disappointment in this facet of the film was the lack of a memorable soundtrack. While the film was not completely quiet, I just don't remember anything outstanding about the soundtrack other then a few Sinatra and assorted jazz tunes. I love classic jazz, and I love the dramatic effect it added to some of the scenes, but again, nothing sticks out in my mind. The video transfer to DVD was excellent and the movie itself was beautifully composed. The landscape is a breathtaking combination of blues and golds and greens and browns. I would absolutely love to go to Italy and see Umbria through Emily Delahunty's eyes.
The only significant extras the DVD offered were a commentary with director Richard Loncraine and executive producer Frank Doelger and a set of cast and crew bios. The commentary was an excellent addition to the movie and provided a great discussion on the creation of Emily's romantic world. The cast and crew bios were clear and easy to read on a television screen. The disc also included a New from HBO trailer which had a mish-mash of clips from movies that would be coming to HBO discs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My House in Umbria is very definitively a character drama. The entire story is based on the character changes in Emily from the beginning of the end, and most strongly on her knowledge that she will lose Aimee, and with her, the rest of her new family. The performances are very moving but there is very little that drives the plot.
The cast was strong enough to carry the movie and make it extremely interesting, but for those who prefer action, this is not a movie to choose. If you like a good character drama, this is a great rental, at least until you decide whether or not you'll want to watch it again.
Director Richard Loncraine and executive producer Frank Doelger are commended on their excellent casting decisions which made an otherwise doomed movie succeed. All are pronounced not guilty and let go with a pat on the back.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Richard Loncraine and Executive Producer Frank Doelger
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