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My House in Umbria

My House in Umbria
2003 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 103 min. / Street Date November 25, 2003 / 26.98
Starring Maggie Smith, Ronnie Barker, Chris Cooper, Benno Fürmann, Giancarlo Giannini, Timothy Spall, Libero De Rienzo
Cinematography Marco Pontecorvo
Production Designer Luciana Arrighi
Art Direction Maria Cristina Onori
Film Editor Humphrey Dixon
Original Music Claudio Capponi
Written by Hugh Whitemore from a novella by William Trevor
Produced by Robert Allan Ackerman, Frank Doelger, Marco Valerio Pugini, Ann Wingate
Directed by Richard Loncraine

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This HBO TV movie earned a lot of critical praise last year, and the DVD lives up to it, presenting the show in excellent quality. William Trevor's slightly hazy story gives us the possibility of a terror thriller, but eases back into an intimate character study instead. Some may feel misdirected by the result, but devotees of novel-like characters will be pleased.

Frilly romance novels figure in the character of Emuily Delahunty, played to the hilt by Maggie Smith. If anything, Smith looks younger than she did fifteen years ago, a neat trick. The production's attractive Italian settings amount to a visual vacation. All in all, another intriguing movie set in Italy.


A bomb explosion in a train compartment baffles Inspector Girotti (Giancarlo Giannini) and convinces him that one of the surviving four passengers must be tied in with terrorist activity. Mrs. Emily Delahunty (Maggie Smith) invites her wounded fellow travelers to her pleasant rooming house-villa in the Italian countryside, and finds that they're a boost to her morale. Staying at the villa is a theraputic experience for the other three as well, all of whom have lost loved ones. The General (Ronnie Barker) takes up gardening, Werner (Benno Fürmann) nurses his burned arm and hand, and little Aimee (Emily Clark) uses art to slowly break out of a trauma-induced silence. Mrs. Delahunty is so happy she stops drinking to excess, until an Uncle of Aimee's is located. He's Thomas Riversmith (Chris Cooper) a no-nonsense scientist who has never met his niece, and he takes immediate offense at Mrs. Delahunty's rather drunken efforts to bring him out of his shell. The newly formed family of survivors seems ready to dissolve with the exit of Aimee ... but Inspector Girotti is slowly uncovering telling evidence about the bombing.

Bombs in railway cars, strangers coming together at a country inn - these are the elements of a thriller who-dunnit, the kind of story where subject number one is figuring out which one of the characters isn't what they seem to be. We've got a retired General, a German student, and a young schoolgirl, all of whom have lost relatives in the explosion. Which is it?

My House in Umbria instead concentrates on characters, and those able to accept the fact of a terror investigation as a background detail may find some interesting drama here. It's somewhat similar to Otto Preminger's old Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon, a story of a group of various kinds of social cripples who band together to form a provisional family - a survivor of a sexual mutilation attack, an unhappy homosexual, a young man who has seizures. This story has the same kind of feeling - we watch the survivors convalesce and learn things about them while wondering if one of them is the dangerous culprit.

This is Maggie Smith's movie. Emily Delahunty's patchy, sordid past is dealt with in brief flashbacks. The success of her pulp romances has enabled her to live one of those idyllic lives in the Italian countryside with her loyal servant Quinty (played by Timothy Spall of The Last Emperor. The greatest pleasure of Umbira is her character: she finally gets a chance to stop playing stuffy old coots and swing loose.

Smith has great fun as a happy lush, bouncing her character off of the uptight and thin-skinned American scientist played by Chris Cooper. Delahunty is sort of a mushy mess who habitually treats her guests as if they were her book characters, and embellishing their backstories in voiceover narration. We even see some of her extrapolations of Riversmith's home life; she's totally willing to invent lives for people. This comes to a head when she invades Riversmith's bedroom in the middle of the night on a dramatic quest to liberate him from his negativity. It's pretty funny, and surprisingly respectful of both characters.

Chris Cooper has his best role since his John Sayles days; the direction allows him to be a closed-off kind of guy without being unduly criticized. His essential incompatibility with Smith's character puts the lie to stories (like the ones Delahunty writes) that preach that good intentions and good wine can make everybody into a good companion.

But it's still Smith's show. She does a better job of seeming attractive and sensual than she did in George Cukor's Travels With My Aunt of over thiry years ago. When they tried to make Smith play a teenager in that film it all seemed forced. Other actresses play Smith in the flashbacks, but Smith still manages to look younger - even after seeing her early on battered, bruised and without makeup.

Director Richard Loncraine does great work with his cast. We like everyone and there are no red-herring mystery touches to cheapen the character study. The location is used marvelously, especially an outing to a nearby town that helps young Aimee open up. The curative passage of the movie never seems too rushed or forced; Aimee isn't utilized as a magnet for easy sentimentality. When the mystery does return at the end, the character story has taken over so fully that the solution to the crime is only a detail.

HBO's DVD of My House in Umbria wins us over with looks alone. The enhanced image is one beautiful image after another, and Marco Pontecorvo's photography has a good 'it really was this pretty' feeling. The soundtrack is augmented with various classical and pop cues that retain the overall un-hyped mood. A very pleasant experience all around.

Director Richard Loncraine (The Haunting of Julia, Brimstone and Treacle provides a welcome commentary along with producer Doelger. Other extras are of the HBO promo variety.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, My House in Umbria rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Director and producer commentary.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 21, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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