“There are, naturally, laughter lines”
As with Ladies in Lavender (which also starred Dame Maggie Smith), early 2000s film My House in Umbria has the distinct air of talcum powder about it, a fustiness that comes its uninspired and frankly tedious ‘niceness’. Richard Loncraine made this film for US cable channel HBO and so some of its overly manneredness could be forgiven as a sop to that market, but it doesn’t change how terribly dated it feels.
Based on a short story by William Trevor, Hugh Whitemore’s screenplay does little to inject any kind of life into the tale, happy instead to potter around lackadaisically. Smith plays Emily Delahunty, a writer of pulpy romance novels who has decamped to the Italian countryside with faithful pal Quinty (Timothy Spall). La bella vita is interrupted though when a bomb explodes on a train she’s on but after she escapes unscathed, she invites the rest of the survivors to recuperate at her villa.
There, we come to see how lonely she is, and how acting as saviour to her new-found colleagues gives a renewed purpose in life. But as she connects with orphaned American girl Aimee who has retreated into muteness and mysteries about the explosion continue to haunt her, a strange air of mystery pervades, wrapped up in the stories she invents for the people around her (not least, a romance with Aimee’s estranged uncle who comes to collect her), that unsettles and annoys.
Smith is naturally excellent throughout, elevating the material to heights it shouldn’t reach, and the filming is stunning, a range of Italian locations looking gorgeous under Marco Pontecorvo’s lens. But it’s all so terribly genteel that it’s very difficult to get engaged with the story, especially once it becomes increasingly improbable (the denouement is ridiculous), making My House in Umbria not one you’ll want to stay in.