So – the great Ronnie Barker, he of wit, pith, innuendo and Norman Stanley Fletcher. Maggie Smith. Timothy Spall. Gorgeously-gorgeous Italian countryside and a tale that starts with terrorism and excitement and then just trails away… Such is the promise, joy and disappointment of My House in Umbria.
Old Jack here had no idea what to expect of this film. Part of me was drawn to the emotion of a frail Barker making his last film appearance, and doing so with under-statement and grace. The trailer gave away that much. But…ohhh.
It starts with isolated writer Mrs Delahunty (Maggie Smith giving lively regret) rushing off to her shopping day, pelting through the Italian glory with friend Quinty (Spall and an interestingly Irishish accent) at the wheel. Practically thrown on a train, she settles in a cramped cubicle with young and old. Tentative words with an American girl are interrupted by an explosion, shown in slo-mo as wind, wafted hair, a dislodged hat and shards of glass cutting rather beautifully through a field of poppies.
At this point, I was caught up in the film. Delahunty comes to in a hospital, finds the surviving passengers – Barker as the General, Benno Fürmann as the unfingered Werner, and Emmy Clarke as the traumatised girl, Aimee. Each has lost much, most tellingly the General who walks under medical assistance along the hospital balcony, carrying the loss of his daughter and son-in-law; most heartbreakingly, Aimee, who must go on without parents and seemingly her voice. Young and old – both ripped up by violence and loss. It’s a gripping moment. The story is really Delahunty’s and the kid’s, but Barker shows his stripes: we oldsters lose our spouses and awfully our children, and we will protect you from the shock that devours us. But…there’s pain beneath the doddering, just you remember.
And then it all goes to blurgh.
Smith – dipping into the narration of an author – takes them all to her gorgeous pensione to recover. Medics pop by to keep Aimee’s story realistic, not least her new penchant for scary-arsed paintings and nightmares, but the focus is gone. The General potters in the garden, Aimee befriends Werner in a mime of friendship, and Delahunty projects, reminisces and fantasizes stories around them all. Apart from the arrival of Aimee’s uncle (Chris Cooper as ant-obesessed professor Riversmith), a man with a spindly wife, no kids, and an air of the unsympathetic, nothing much happens. Who planted the bomb is resolved – and you’ve probably already worked it out. Aimee progresses through her trauma. the group bond amongst sunshine, flowers and occasional trips to beautiful town. Smith pushes her Aimee-based wish fulfilment a tad too far, pissing off Cooper’s Riversmith in a May-to-December fantasy that had me cringing, and…that’s it. She learns not to fantasise – a bit.
Mad Maud, a sucker for crinkly-led, plotless-but-pretty sad-romances when her librium is low, liked My House in Umbria. From a gripping start, I felt rather trapped by it, grumpy that Barker’s farewell wasn’t better, and a bit bored.