The elderly ladies' Italian eutopia is terrorised when Mussolini's dictatorship turns into war.
Director Zeffirelli has made a few stinkers in his time (Sparrow anyone?) and you don't need two hands to count his decent films (chiefly the operas and the Shakespeares). Happily, his latest, based on his own childhood experiences in war-time Florence, falls into the latter category. When his mother dies and his father won't take responsibility for him, young Luca is taken under the wing of Mary (Plowright), his father's kind, practical secretary and one of a bunch of dotty English ladies who restore frescoes and take tea at 4pm prompt. Leader of the pack is the haughty Lady Hester (Smith), while the actressy Earth Mother type is represented by Arabella (Dench). A few brash Americans hang out with the ex-pats too, including wealthy ex-Broadway star Elsa (Cher). When she buys Luca a knickerbocker glory, Smith gets to display her finest snobby shudder: "It's amazing - they can even vulgarise ice cream."
As war looms and Mussolini's blackshirts start smashing up cafes, Hester goes to see the dictator. He reassures her - unreassuringly - that he means them no harm. However, they are soon taken into custody as enemy aliens. By this time, Luca (newcomer Baird Wallace), who was shipped off to school by his father to become a Nazi, has returned un-Nazified and determined to help the women - a task made tougher when America joins the war, putting Elsa in danger.
Zeffirelli's mawkish tendencies are checked by Mortimer's funny, richly observant screenplay; it's rose-tinted but plays up character and everyday detail rather than wallowing in war-movie villainy. Although by focusing on the tribulations of an arty-farty elite, the film lacks any sense of general political outrage, this is a loving, moving portrait of resilience in hard times, with Plowright, wonderfully warm and wise, as the pick of the stars. They may be bonkers and out of touch, but you can't help but root for the old biddies at every turn.
This is a loving, moving portrait of resilience in hard times, though due to its focus on the arty farty elite, it lacks a more general sense of political outrage.