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Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

Life offers you a thousand chances ... all you have to do is take one.

Directed by:

Audrey Wells

Rating: 5/10

Running Time: 113 minutes

UK Certificate: 12A

Country: Italy, United States

In certain circles, the mere mention of Diane Lane’s name can provoke a reverential silence. Like Julianne Moore, like Patricia Clarkson, Lane is a real talent rather than a hyped star, able to bring warmth and credibility to any character she plays. It is, however, her curse that the quality of the films in which she appears (and there are around forty of them) rarely matches the quality of her acting, so that she has never achieved the broad recognition that she deserves. Her recent portrayal of middle-aged adultery in Unfaithful (2002), for which she was beaten to the best actress Academy Award by a mere nose (or, to be more precise, by the prosthetic nose of Nicole The Hours Kidman), is typical of this phenomenon – a memorably intense performance in a thoroughly forgettable film.

In ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, based on the autobiographical book by Frances Mayes, Lane again plays a middle-class, middle-aged woman in a troubled marriage, only this time it is the husband who has strayed. Offered a holiday in Tuscany as a consolatory gift from her best friend Patti (Sandra Oh), recent divorcee Frances (Lane) buys an old villa there on a whim. In the months that follow, as the dilapidated building undergoes refurbishment, Frances also gradually rebuilds her damaged life from the foundations up, forging new relationships with her Italian neighbours, her Polish contract workers, a free-spirited English émigrée called Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), the lesbian Patti and her newborn child, and (of course) various love interests.

The sex, when it comes, is all very restrained (unlike in Unfaithful), but the sexual imagery that replaces it is positively no holds barred. Frances’ anxieties about men are figured by the appearance of a snake in her villa, while her discovery of a hidden pussy marks the revival of her sex life – and it is not until the end, when Frances has cemented her new extended family (including a sexual partner), that, quite literally, her plumbing returns to full working order. These clumsy visual metaphors prove to be quite funny, but it is anyone’s guess if that was the original intention.

‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ marshals a familiar range of trite conventions in its presentation of Italian life. Quaint customs and rustic charm abound, Latin romance is always hovering in the air, there is an overprotective father (Roberto Nobile) and a permanently weeping grandmother (Evelina Gori), gelati, limoncello and mopeds play prominent rôles, and there is even a drunken re-enactment of the famous Trevi fountain scene from Federico Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’. Irony occasionally makes a half-hearted appearance to conteract such clichés. When, for example, Marcello (Raoul Bova) chats Frances up with an inexcusably cheesy come-on, she reproves him with the knowing response ‘That’s exactly what American women think Italian men say’ – although that does not stop her sleeping with him. The Italian grandmother, it turns out, weeps so inconsolably not because of the loss of her husband, but more unexpectedly because her young Ecuadorian e-mail lover has discovered her true age – yet the humorous effect is later undone when she returns to clichéd form, delivering a pathos-laden speech about the true love she had shared with her husband. In other words, ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ wants to have its panettone and eat it too, and the result is a film a little too self-consciously quirky, a little too annoyingly twee, to appeal to anybody but plane-travellers, readers of books like ‘A Year in Provence’, and die-hard Diane Lane fans.

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It's Got: Some smart dialogue, some pretty scenery, and of course Diane Lane.

It Needs: To be less twee, and less heavy-handed with its sexual imagery.

Alternatives:

Le Fate Ignoranti, Up at the Villa

Summary

Middle-class, middle-aged, Mediterranean mediocrity.

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