My House in Umbria
Screen Time: 55%
Age: 11 years old
My House in Umbria
Directed: Richard Loncraine
After a tragic train accident, four survivors find solace in the villa of an English writer, Mrs. Delahunty. The other survivors--an American girl, a British general, and a young German --struggle to come to terms with the disaster, as an inspector tries to figure out exactly what happened. Eventually, the young girl's uncle shows up, bringing the film to a climax.
Movie ReviewsWatching the delicate subtleties of HBO's "My House in Umbria" unfold in their own unhurried pace may prompt you to realize how rare it is for the nuance of written fiction to make it unscathed when transformed to film or television. The gist of the story is often there, of course, but the process of adaptation too often involves a certain distillation. Something always seems to be lost.
Very little seems lost in this lovely adaptation of William Trevor's 1991 short novel, premiering Sunday on HBO, thanks in no small way to a magnificent and uncharacteristically restrained performance by Maggie Smith as Emily Delahunty, an aging romance novelist whose life -- or rather, her habit of escaping from it -- is irrevocably changed after she boards a train for a shopping trip to Milan.
A few moments after entering a crowded compartment containing, among others,
a pair of young German lovers, an American family and its young, inquisitive daughter, and a retired general and his family, a bomb goes off. Only Emily, the general, the young German man and the little girl survive.
We all but forget about the cause of their grief as Emily takes the other survivors back to her house in Umbria, tended to by her faithful Quinty (Timothy Spall) whose life she saved many years before. The little girl, Aimee (Emily Clarke), remains silent for many days, unable to confront the loss of her parents and expressing the horror she feels only through a series of stark paintings.
Meanwhile, the general (Ronnie Barker) and the young German, Werner (Benno Furmann), one arm encased a thick cast, set about turning the tumble of weeds outside the house into an English country garden. Were it not for the cause of these total strangers coming together this way, life at the house in Umbria would seem like a sun-drenched idyll.
Or, perhaps, one of Emily's romance novels. She's written many over the years. She has an entire shelf of them in the house, written under different names. Slowly, we begin to understand that they are more than just her work: They have been her way of escaping from her own sad and tawdry life. Raised by a loveless "father who was not my father" and "mother who was not my mother," being groped by strange men in movie theaters, later going off with traveling salesmen who abandoned her when they had no more use for her, her life has been the polar opposite of the happy endings she creates on the page.
Although she hasn't written in a while, she continues to write in her mind, however, spinning unlikely details of the lives of people she meets. "The somber side of things does not appeal to me," she concedes.
Just as Emily has been unable to keep the reality of her past from her mind,
the real world intrudes into the rarefied world of the country house, first in the person of an Italian police inspector (Giancarlo Giannini) but then, more threateningly, when Aimee's only surviving relative, her uncle Thomas Riversmith (Chris Cooper), shows up from the United States to take her back. Emily has grown fond and protective of the little girl, but we also understand that if Aimee leaves, the perfect life Emily has temporarily constructed will crumble.
The brilliance of the film owes much to Hugh Whitemore's careful script, to director Richard Loncraine's thoughtful pace and, most of all, to Smith's performance. Emily could so easily become a pathetic character, an object of pity -- Miss Haversham in the Italian countryside. True, she drinks too much and her rambling imagination leads her to throw herself sadly at the younger Riversmith, who is repulsed by her. But Emily does not come off as pathetic; instead, we find ourselves hoping her dream world comes true.
Smith, of course, has amassed a whole carpet bag of tics, mannerisms and whooping vocalise since "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" -- and that doesn't even begin to address what she's able to do with those enormous, multiply expressive eyes. I remember seeing her a couple of years ago on the London stage in Alan Bennett's "The Lady in the Van." As a batty old lady who lived in a van, she pulled out so many tricks in her book she seemed to be channeling the ghost of Margaret Rutherford. No one else onstage stood a chance.
All of her bits of business have made Smith a delight in over-the-top roles.
But here, her face is often in repose, her voice carefully modulated, her gestures small, sometimes even tentative. To be sure, if some of the nuance of Trevor's book is delivered by Smith's voice-over narration, it's the performance itself that grabs hold of us and doesn't let go. The more Smith holds back, the more we want to know about her character.
It's almost a cliche in literature that characters who take refuge from
reality in their dreams or imagination are doomed. But sometimes a certain
detachment from reality is necessary, even restorative. As "My House in
Umbria" unfolds, we see a clear parallel between Aimee, whose inability to
speak after the death of her parents is enabling her to heal, and Emily. Could
it be that Emily is healing as well? Is it possible that she's no longer able
to write because her fiction has outgrown its usefulness to her? If so,
perhaps she's ready to enter the world again at last.
[San Francisco Chronicle]