American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Does anyone read Somerset Maugham anymore? From the 1920s to the 1950s he was the most respected "popular" novelist in the world, or the most popular "respected" novelist (the praise was always tempered with quotation marks). He traveled the world to the haunts of British expatriates; his stories, whether set in Singapore or Italy, often dealt with the choice between prudent and passionate romance. He knew his characters; he had a deep knowledge of shallow people.
Philip Haas' "Up at the Villa" is based on Maugham's novella about a group of British expats in Florence, enjoying their last days of mannered sloth before the outbreak of World War II. It is not the same story that Franco Zeffirelli told in his 1999 movie "Tea With Mussolini," but his characters and these characters would have known each other by name.
The villa of the title is occupied by a temporary guest, Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a pretty widow in her mid-30s. Her husband drank up and gambled away their money and himself. Now she depends on the kindness of friends. An old friend named Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox) has just journeyed over from Cannes to propose marriage to her. He is tall, slender, will not see 60 again and has manners that make you want to sit very still. Soon he will be named governor of Bengal; Mary would become the first lady of British society in Calcutta. Mary's adviser on this possibility is the Principessa San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft), who has a town house thanks to a rich Italian husband, now dead, "so ugly he frightened the horses." Sir Edgar's is an attractive offer for Mary. She asks for time to think it over. She doesn't love Sir Edgar--but what, asks the Principessa, does love have to do with it? In a frank heart-to-heart, the Principessa explains that she married for security and took lovers for entertainment, although sex, she sighs, supplies you in old age with neither the fond memories nor the security of wealth. Once, says the Principessa (Bancroft delivering this confidence at the end of a virtuoso monologue as they walk in the garden), she made love recklessly for a single night with a risky young man, just for the fun of it.
At the Principessa's table in a restaurant that night, Mary is seated next to a brash, rich American named Rowley Flint (Sean Penn). He is married, separated, bold. He wants to spend the night with her. She likes him but says no. He responds insolently, she slaps him and dumps him, and on the way home, picks up a pathetic little unshaven violinist she saw in a restaurant. He is Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies), an Austrian refugee from Hitler. She takes pity on him and brings him into her bed, where, inspired by the Principessa's story, she gives him such a night to remember that she is still wearing her pearls in the morning.