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Up at the Villa: Book into Film



Up at the Villa, Philip Haas's adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name, is one of my favorite movies. Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox and Jeremy Davies all turn in fantastic performances, and the décor is opulent. So, when the novel fell into my hands, I was avid to read it. Imagine my surprise.

In the movie, the Fascists are intensifying their control of daily life. Foreign residents are required to register with the people on a weekly basis. Against this background, Mary Panton, the heroine, is in something of a pickle when a young man shoots himself in her bedroom - and uses a handgun given to her by the man who wants to marry her. Rowley Flint, a dissolute but wealthy American, comes to her rescue, and helps her to dispose of the body.

The body is discovered, along with Rowley's gun, which he substituted for Sir Edgar's. Two days later, he is detained by the police, with Sir Edgar's weapon on his person. This means that Sir Edgar will be in the soup when he returns from Cannes - all guns must be registered! Mary remembers what the Princess San Ferdinando, a wealthy American widow, told her about Beppino Leopardi, the chief Fascist in Florence and a man who has leered in Mary's direction. I won't spoil it here, but Mary undertakes a somewhat elaborate and very daring ruse, and pulls it off. She gets Rowley out of jail and Sir Edgar's gun.

But as Sir Edgar is about to be Governor of Bengal, Mary sees that she can't be Caesar's wife; eventually, the story of the boy in the bedroom will get out. So she lets Sir Edgar off, even though this leaves her with no marital prospects (Rowley is married) and no money.

In the book, Rowley is English and unmarried, so Mary agrees to marry him. Also, and by the way, nothing that occurred in the second paragraph of my synopsis occurs in the book. No Fascists, no gun problems, no elaborate ruse. I might add that the elaborate ruse is the heart of the movie, and a real caper. It was, to put it mildly, a bit of a surprise to find it missing from the book. Screenwriter Belinda Haas evidently made it all up.

Nonetheless, the novella succeeds, because it does what movies usually don't: it takes us into Mary's mind. Nor does the book outwear its welcome. A reprint using old plates, with acres of white on every page and not too many words, the Vintage edition currently for sale is a very quick read. For anyone half as interested as I am in the transformation of books into movies, Up at the Villa provides a wonderful pair of experiences. I would recommend reading the story, first serialized in Redbook, of all places, in the spring of 1940, first. I wish I could have done it that way.


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Sounds excellent. If you've permit some trivial star worship for a moment: Kirsten Scott Thomas takes yoga with me sometimes! I would never write about it on my blog, she deserves her privacy, but she's quite lovely.

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