Made in Italy

Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson


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






November 1st

Lindsay Duncan and Sophia Myles in a car

 

Short and sweet isn’t the way write/director Charlie Manton plays it in this revenge-driven short starring Lindsay Duncan and Sophia Myles

 

Uh oh, I thought, when actors Lindsay Duncan and Sophia Myles first opened their mouths, and out came Southern-fried accents. Duncan is from Edinburgh and Myles is a Londoner and if there’s anything that listening to too many BBC Radio 4 afternoon plays has taught me, it’s to be wary of Brits doing American.

 

And maybe neither of them is entirely on target vocally 100 per cent of the time. But there’s no doubting the performances, Duncan’s in particular, in what feels like the very satisfying last act of an intensely fraught drama about a mother and daughter heading off to a correctional facility where the man who killed a family member is about to be executed.

 

Another “uh oh” springing to mind – when a Brit director locates their short in the US, too often the result is a film relying on calling-card pyrotechnics rather than dramatic rigour or heft.

 

But writer/director Charlie Manton’s November 1st is in fact a rigorous, hefty work with a lovely final payoff – no, no spoilers – that sees Duncan and Myles’s mother and daughter do little more than share a car journey, have a fraught meal in a roadside pull-in, spend the night in a shabby motel, before heading for the penitentiary, sniping all the way.

 

Lindsay Duncan and Sophia Myles in a motel bedroom
You want it darker? – mother and daughter prepare to turn in

 

The arguments are never quite fully formed, in the way they’re often not in real life, but revenge and redemption, guilt and innocence, and qualms about the morality of legalised killing are in there, along with decades of pain – this murder happened back in the 1980s – and how that pain disfigures both the survivor (the mother) and those who stand by and watch (the daughter).

 

This collision of logic and emotion, animal rage and rational humanism, is at the heart of a story about a journey towards “closure” and what that actually means.

 

Treating the short as if it’s the last third of a film forces the actors to go from 0-60 in an eyeblink, but they pull it off and soon any qualms about accents and authenticity have been banished to wherever this drama was shot. You could tell me it was Florida and I’d believe you. I’d also believe Norfolk – its flatness and big skies double well.

 

DP Molly Manning Walker shoots dark and flat and close up on the actors. Handy when cash is tight but it does really throw the onus on the actors, who really need to deliver. Duncan and Myles both do, in an angry yet subtle drama of surprising complexity.

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Films about Margaret Thatcher

Andrea Riseborough as young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley

 

 

Margaret Thatcher, Mrs T, The Iron Lady, is dead. 31 years ago she was the most unpopular UK Prime Minister in history. Then, after winning the Falklands War she was re-elected in 1983. She was elected again in 1987 before being defenestrated by her party in 1990, a defeat she never quite came to terms with. Politically she was deeply divisive but on one point everyone is agreed – she recast British politics, and to a certain extent global politics, with her doctrine of open markets, privatisation, financial deregulation and tax cuts. Thatcher made the world we live in now. To some she was the greatest prime minister who ever lived, to others a devil in a blue dress. Here are five films either about her or in which she featured prominently.

 

 

Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley (2008, dir: Niall MacCormick)

The breakthrough for the astonishingly versatile Andrea Riseborough who plays young Margaret Thatcher, a woman determined to make it in a man’s world. The decision to show Mrs T (even before she was Mrs T, in fact) as a plucky striver – is a brilliant one. Regardless of politics we’re on Thatcher’s side as a grim cavalcade of awful chauvinists, misogynists and old duffers spend ten years knocking our heroine back as a prospective parliamentary candidate. For those who think Meryl Streep is great as Mrs T, watch Riseborough do something similarly brilliant.

The Long Walk to Finchley – at Amazon

 

The Iron Lady (2011, dir: Phyllida Lloyd)

The amazing Meryl Streep plays Baroness Thatcher in old age, looking back through a haze of dementia at the handbagging Mrs T in her prime. It’s a tender portrait of a human being that has little to say about Mrs Thatcher as a political beast, or of the era she lived through. Best scene: Mrs T is haranguing Alexander Haig, President Reagan’s Secretary of State, for trying to talk her out of the invasion of the Falklands. Having torn him off a strip, she jumps up and says, “Now, shall I be mother?” Bewilderment from Al Haig. “… Tea, Al, how do you like it, black or white?” Beautiful observed, and Meryl Streep’s comic timing is exquisite.

The Iron Lady – at Amazon

 

The Hunt for Tony Blair (2011, dir: Peter Richardson)

Stephen Mangan plays fugitive prime minister Tony Blair in a cod 1950s detective thriller from UK jokesters The Comic Strip. Dropped by all his political allies because of his increasingly unhinged behaviour and now a murderer on the run, Blair takes refuge with Baroness Thatcher (Jennifer Saunders), who now lives in Norma Desmond delusional obscurity with her manservant, Tebbit (John Sessions). Between them Sessions and Saunders manage to squeeze some of the better laughs out of a script that is as stop-go as the UK economy.

Not available at Amazon – not yet

 

Elizabeth (1998, dir: Shekhar Kapur)

The film is about Queen Elizabeth I of England, but Cate Blanchett plays her very much as an iron lady of four centuries later, the voice swooping low, the eyes blazing with fire, all intransigence and feminine wile (when it suits her). It says something about Margaret Thatcher that she’s become a resource, an archive reference for actresses to go to when reaching out for something tough, possibly something unholy. Imelda Staunton did something similar in 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, playing Ministry of Magic apparatchik Dolores Umbridge as at least 50 per cent Mrs T. How that would have made the former prime minister’s blood boil – being presented as a bureaucrat, I mean.

Elizabeth – at Amazon

 

Margaret (2009, dir: James Kent)

A “last days of Thatcher” drama starring Lindsay Duncan as the prime minister hemmed in on all sides, not quite grasping that it is the party that made her leader, not the electorate, and that those who live by the sword are expected, when the time comes, to fall on it. And it is this failure to self-immolate that Richard Cottan’s screenplay is about. Duncan presents what is probably the iciest and most furious of the many portrayals of Thatcher, but then it was widely believed, by friend and foe alike, that by 1990 the country’s first female prime minister had slightly lost the plot. Incidentally, John Sessions turns up as Cabinet minister Geoffrey Howe. He played former Conservative party leader Edward Heath in The Iron Lady and minister Norman Tebbit in The Hunt for Tony Blair.

Margaret – at Amazon

 

 

Noble mentions: Lesley Manville in The Queen (2009), Anna Massey in Pinochet in Suburbia (2006), Patricia Hodge in The Falklands Play (2002), Steve Nallon as Thatcher’s voice in the Spitting Image TV series, Angela Thorne in Anyone for Denis? (1982). Highly effective Thatchers one and all.