The husband and wife director-writer team behind The Music Of Chance (1993) and Angels And Insects (1995), have settled on W. Somerset Maugham's 1940 novella for their third big screen outing. As with those two films, all is not what is seems beneath the surface of the gentle ex-pat community. Here, Mary (Scott Thomas), a widow hoping to marry into money, is the fly in the ointment, stirring up a hornets' nest of lies and blackmail.
As the film opens, her destiny seems set: she will marry the much older Sir Edgar Smith (Fox), and the match is approved by hostess of the scene, Princess San Fernando (a delightfully wicked Anne Bancroft). But after meeting the rakish Roley Flint (Penn), her plan goes awry and, trying to escape her feelings for him, she rashly steps into bed with an Austrian refugee (Davies). The repercussions of this act shatter her quiet existence and draw the community's attention to the changes in a country where fascism is on the rise and war is imminent.
So far, so good. On paper this must have looked a promising story, and linking it to Italy's political agenda works well. What makes less sense is the crass dialogue, the awkward acting and the dull realisation of what should be an enthralling situation. Fair play to Scott Thomas; she manages to utter lines like, "But India needs you" to her fiancé with a straight face and, most impressively, remain calm in the face of Derek Jacobi's terrifying make-up and over-acting. The passion and chemistry needed to make this work are plainly lacking, but again the scenery triumphs; as yet another ad for a trip to Italy, the film is a winner.