The lure of Italy is strong – especially for filmmakers. It seems every story of transformative discovery needs to play out against a sun-dappled backdrop in Sicily or the Veneto. But of course, Tuscany is particularly beloved (see Under the Tuscan Sun, and its ilk). So it’s not exactly surprising that British writer-director James D’Arcy heads for the region in his debut feature Made in Italy.
D’Arcy is an actor (he appeared in Dunkirk and Cloud Atlas, among his many credits) who’s slipped to the other side of the camera for this romantic drama. But while he elicits mostly fine performances from his cast, a clunky script and some sloppy direction let the film down.
Jack (Micheál Richardson) is foundering. His marriage is in ruins, and his livelihood is under threat. He manages a posh London art gallery owned by his ex’s family. Now they want him out. With his world crumbling, he turns to his father, Robert (Liam Neeson), a reclusive artist. But he’s not seeking solace. Rather he bundles Robert into a car and drives him to Tuscany where they jointly own a villa. Jack wants Robert to help him fix up the place a bit, and put it on the market. But when they arrive, it seems the challenge is greater than anticipated. Years of neglect have left the villa as essentially a ruin.
Once there, they start the slow process of renovating. Luckily enough, soon after arriving, Jack heads into the nearby town and meets charming local restaurateur Natalia (Valeria Bilello). She has connections, and helps the Brits engage some local tradesmen to undertake the more challenging bits of the reno. Natalia has issues of her own with her ex, so she and Jack are seemingly kindred spirits. But will the challenges of the villa solidify or break their bond? And can Jack re-connect with his rather curmudgeonly father?
D’Arcy’s screenplay seems very much like a debut project. The metaphor of the crumbling house mirroring Jack’s crumbling relationship with his father is stunningly obvious. Similarly, the contrast between dreary rain-soaked London (standing in for Jack’s failed marriage) and sunny, beautiful Tuscany (yes, it represents his potential new future with Natalia) takes no effort to parse. The tipping point in the third strains credibility. And the film’s ending goes exactly where I expected it. It’s all so trite it tiptoes the border of cliche.
While the story may not be all that exciting, the film offers some compensations. High on that list is Mark Eley’s (The White Crow) cinematography, which lovingly captures the stunning Tuscan scenery (filmed around Montalcino near Siena, if you want to add it to your travel wish-list).
In a casting coup, D’Arcy manages to again team up real-life father and son Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson (they previously appeared together in Cold Pursuit) in two of the principal roles. Their familial bond adds an air of authenticity to the film, even if the younger man isn’t at his father’s level in the craft of acting. Valeria Bilello (best known here for the TV series Sense8) is suitably winsome as Natalia, even if the role isn’t exactly challenging. The remainder of the cast largely drift in and out of the film, but Lindsay Duncan (Gifted) makes an impression as a no-nonsense real estate agent.
As romantic dramas go, Made in Italy is strictly by-the-numbers. I couldn’t find anything new or innovative about it. Some of its elements just didn’t ring true for me. But if you’re after a familiar, unchallenging 2 hours or so, it might do the trick.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television