Made in Italy

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Made in Italy feels like it’s based on one of the books by Peter Mayle, the British advertising executive who tired of the life and lit out for France, where he set about writing lighthearted sun-dredged reports on his new life. A Year in Provence was the first and it sold very well.

That became a TV series of the same name, starring John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan as the expatriate couple making a new go of it, and another Mayle book, A Good Year, later became a Ridley Scott film starring Russell Crowe as a Brit in Provence learning to be a bit less of a bull at a gate about life.

Writer/director James McAvoy clearly has Mayle in his sights for his Tuscan version of the same thing – Brits abroad, charming vila, a beaker of the warm south, daffy locals, life lessons learned, the soul restored.

And, as if to make a connection to Mayle’s books, Lindsay Duncan turns up, as an estate agent, McAvoy clearly not remembering that A Year in Provence on TV got a critical hammering.

What A Year in Provence did with a husband and wife, Made in Italy does with a father and son. Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson (Neeson’s actual son) play the pair. Robert (Neeson) is a once well known painter who hasn’t actually produced anything for years. Jack (Richardson) is the son travelling to Italy with his father to sell the family’s holiday home in Tuscany to raise money after a messy divorce in which “she got everything”.

Off they go, grumbling curmudgeonly Robert and lightly simmering Jack, old beefs kept on the back burner so they can do the necessary, patch up the house neither has visited for years and then carry on with their separate lives.

We know with a certainty strong enough to wager a kidney on it that this is not going to happen. And so Robert and Jack arrive and the film takes wing – those Tuscan landscapes, the fabulous villa looking like (broken down) property porn, the obligatory romance (for Jack) with a stunningly attractive, warm smart Italian (Valeria Bilello), the montage sequences of the house being licked into shape, including the simple glorious meal of bread, cheese and a glass of rustic red. McAvoy spares us the idiosyncratic locals – maybe they got lost in the edit.

Natalia and Jack
Natalia and Jack

In the background lurks the dead wife of Robert, the local girl Robert married all those years ago, and whose death lies ever-present in the life of both him and his son – dad won’t talk about it, won’t paint, won’t drive. All three are connected and at a certain point this emotional boil has to be lanced, in scenes that jar not because the acting is bad – it isn’t – but because they upset the prevailing tone.

Up till now nothing has really had any emotional consequence – dad’s painting, son’s broken marriage, their bad relationship, and on top of that we’ve been introduced to Natalia (Bilello), struggling single mother with an ex husband (Gian Marco Tavani) who looks like he’s being lined up to be a proper villain. But that goes nowhere. None of it really goes anywhere.

In fact in Made in Italy nothing really happens, while the tone swings around wildly – comedy, romance, drama, melodrama. Neeson struggles manfully with an underwritten role, his comedy-curmudgeon dad flashing on and off like a distress beacon, while there’s enough of a romantic subplot between Jack and Natalie (she runs a local restaurant, naturally) for us to realise that there is no chemistry between Richardson and Bellilo.

Still, there’s Pavarotti on the soundtrack and plenty of fabulous views of Tuscany. Valeria Bilello emerges relatively unscathed, somehow embodying what the film is meant to be full of, but isn’t. As a picture-postcard movie for a wet Sunday night, Made in Italy might fit the bill.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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