MY HOUSE IN UMBRIA
On an average shopping trip to Milan from her house in Umbria, English born Emily Delahunty (Maggie Smith), an author of romantic novels, shares a train carriage with other travellers. When an explosion rips through the carriage, Emily, a retired English General (Ronnie Barker), a young German (Benno Furmann) and 12 year old American girl, Aimee (Emmy Clarke) are all injured but alive; Aimee's parents and the young man's girlfriend are dead. On their release from hospital, Emily invites the survivors to her house to recuperate - and wait for the authorities to locate Aimee's relatives. Aimee is so traumatised she can't speak, but Emily warms to her as if she were her own child. When Aimee's uncle Tom (Chris Cooper) arrives, an academic who's been estranged from Aimee's family since before her birth, Aimee's fate hangs in the balance. Meanwhile, Inspector Girotti (Giancarlo Giannini) is getting closer to solving the mystery of the bomb on the train.
Review by Louise Keller:
My House in Umbria is the sort of film you might expect from Merchant Ivory. Cinematic with a character-driven plot, this made-for-television adaptation from William Trevor's novel may be set in the present, but it feels a little like a period piece with its elegant clothes and plush settings. It's not surprising that the incomparable Maggie Smith won an Emmy for her role in the film, while director Richard Loncraine (Wimbledon) and Chris Cooper in the best supporting actor category were among the nominations.
A story about guilt, love and happy endings, My House in Umbria is a delightful and uplifting encounter. And accompanying us for every minute of the journey is Maggie Smith in splendid form. All the characters come alive as surely as every twist and turn on the poplar-lined long dirt road that lead to the sanctuary where the story takes place. You can almost feel the warm Italian sunshine and can delight in the gentle breeze that kisses the wild red poppies that dance freely in the field.
To be without love is like being deprived of oxygen, muses Maggie Smith's Mrs Delahunty, who believes that names, like clothes are useful for different occasions. A true romantic, she uses many names for her romantic fiction, for which she dips into real life and her imagination to write. Her imagination has been her sanctuary all these years, and she is realistic enough to know that sometimes one has to create one's own happy ending. Maggie Smith bares her soul as the ageing writer who spends each waking moment observing others and imagining intimate details about their lives. There is such beauty in the facial lines that the years bring and she has no qualms about showing them. Her performance is infectious: when Maggie Smith giggles, we giggle; when she cries, we cry.
Strangers are no longer strangers, when they are share an experience as tragic as the bomb blast in the railway carriage, and when Mrs Delahunty opens the doors to her Italian villa to the four survivors, she feels needed. There's the regimented General (Ronnie Barker), injured German journalist Werner (Benno Furmann) and eight year old Aimee (Emmy Clarke), who become part of the household, run by man of all trades Quinty (Timothy Spall) who not only is the chauffeur, gardener, but runs all the finances. Spall makes much of his role; from being the barman waiting patiently for guests to voice their whim, he can quickly become the man in charge of the situation and the emotional rock. The scenes between Smith and Chris Cooper's insufferable American entomologist are static with electricity, and we are never sure where they will lead. I smiled inwardly when Mrs Delahunty muses how a few weeks with the right woman would rid Cooper's Tom of all his irritating habits.
I felt like jumping on a plane to Italy seconds after My House in Umbria began. The Italian settings are simply beautiful making this a destination worth visiting.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Not all adaptations from books end up as wordy as this one, filled with dialogue and monologues (in voice over mode), but then Maggie Smith's Emily Delahunty is a writer herself, adding somewhat to the wordage. As the story unfolds across the beautiful summer landscapes of Umbria, it becomes increasingly clear that the terrorist bomb on the train that brings these people together at Emily's lovely two storey villa - tended by two servants and her loyal man about the house Quinty (Timothy Spall) - is a device on which the film adaptation stumbles. I haven't read the novel, perhaps it works in that context, give the space to be filled out into a substantial subplot.
The event itself is filmed minimally, with no sign of the carnage, no visceral connection to the terrible moment, so that the quiet aftermath seems oddly serene. But Aimee's trauma-induced muteness also seems as perfunctory as the blast.
In the film this all sits oddly and inconclusively, an irritant rather than a genuine dramatic tool. It also extends the film unnecessarily. But without that explosive beginning, the elements don't really add up to much; the characters spend a lazy summer in a pleasant environment, brought together by tragedy, healed by Emily's need to be a nurturing soul.
Of course, the film's big gun is Maggie Smith, who conjures up a wonderfully complex older lady with enough zest to make her interesting. We see glimpses of her colourful past, hints of mistreatment and a sad little childhood. But now she knocks out frilly romance books from her haven in Umbria, dresses to the nines and helps keep the Grappa distilleries in business.
Chris Cooper comes in late as the ice cool professor of ants who's never even met Aimee before, and there are a couple of terrific scenes between him and Smith. Ronnie Barker as the old General and Timothy Spall as Quinty are both entertaining, and the little girl is amiable enough, but the film's bondage to the novel is also its burden. Where a novel can take us on imaginary detours that fill in the tapestry of our imagination-built world, on the screen we are looking at specific images, and the gossamer like atmosphere of good literature is absent. Some books need to be left between the covers.
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CAST: Maggie Smith, Ronnie Barker, Chris Cooper, Benno Furmann, Giancarlo Giannini, Tomothy Spall, Libero De Rienzo, Emmy Clarke, Cecilia Dazzi
PRODUCER: Ann Wingate
DIRECTOR: Richard Loncraine
SCRIPT: Hugh Whitemore (novella by William Trevor)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Marco Pontecorvo
EDITOR: Humphrey Dixon
MUSIC: Claudio Capponi
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Luciana Arrighi
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 24, 2005
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video
VIDEO RELEASE: September 7, 2002