Over a year since it was canned for TV by HBO, My House In Umbria is finally given a UK cinema release. Its final release date is just a fortnight after star Maggie Smith appears in the more recent Ladies In Lavender. Is November to be Dame Maggie month?
Based on the novella by William Trevor, the premise for this jaunt through typically eyecatching Italian countryside is a train disaster. An unlikely group of people, just such a group as you’d find on a train, find solace and friendship in the wake of the disaster, as accident victim and lonely English romantic novelist Emily Delahunty (Smith) offers the charms of her Umbrian home as a refuge.
The survivors consist of Aimee, a young American girl (Emmy Clarke); a British general (Ronnie Barker – yes, really); and a young German (Benno Furmann). Together with their host and her driver (Timothy Spall), their bonds are strengthened by the inquiries of a police inspector (Giancarlo Giannini) attempting to piece together the cause of the incident. And then Aimee’s ant-studying uncle (Chris Cooper) shows up. As Emily faces the prospect of losing Aimee to a man she finds difficult to connect with, all manner of skeletons emerge creaking from closets, sabres rattle and personalities clash.
In recent films which glorify the Italian countryside, such as Under The Tuscan Sun, the expatriate Italian lifestyle is embodied in the long, lingering scenes of a variety of Italy’s most beautiful rural locations, with shots as wide as lenses can muster. My House In Umbria, by contrast, is clearly made for TV. The landscape isn’t used to its intoxicating best effect – a quibble which nonetheless fails to detract from wonderfully nuanced performances from the cast.
They work well as an ensemble under the thoughtful guidance of Richard Loncraine, who extracts from Smith in particular a restrained and inspiring performance. Emily buries her past in words unsaid and drinks drunk, while events overtake her ability to express her emotions in personal exchange as effectively as she writes of emotion in her novels. She’s the opposite of young Aimee – the girl doesn’t speak, while Emily’s words pour out in uncontrollable torrents.
Hugh Whitemore, author of made-for-TV triumph The Gathering Storm and the plays Macmillan and Pack Of Lies, has constructed an engaging screenplay which leads us bit by bit into Emily’s past. Contrary to the showy house and the perceived life of the successful novelist, we find a woman increasingly desperate to draw comfort from a life that has largely let down her expectations and led to her escaping into her writing. And as we get to know her, we find we want to know more. We side with her against Cooper’s cold, academic character – who still provides some genuinely funny moments – and, for all her faults, we want her dream world to win through.
Ultimately, My House In Umbria is that rare breed of film – a feelgood movie with a thoughtful structure and characters who inspire interest. Its sedate pace is a comment on la dolce vita, but it also allows the audience to reflect on characters who are as real as any you’ll see on the big screen.