British romance novelist Emily Delahunty had traveled to Rome by train when the carriage she sat on, along with others, got blown up by a bomb explosion. Presently, she lives in a quaint villa in the hills of Umbria which has now became a haven for the remnant survivors; an old Englishman, a young German lad, and an American girl.
In the surface, it seems like an idyllic scene as Mrs. Delahunty spends her time in nostalgia, drinking grappa, taking walks along the Italian countryside and sitting in her private rooms with a shelf displaying her array of novels but beneath this delightful image runs a dark past and dim musings. As is the facade of a quiet pensione villa for tourists that now houses a handful of people, walking figures of grief and pain and survival.
William Trevor's prose is akin to a lovely drowsy summer afternoon, light and beautiful and yet wrought with subtle tones of crumbling sadness. His characters are quite complex, a bit wanting, a bit damaged; and yet they have their strengths and kindness. Each of their natures appear suspicious but you end up sympathizing with their plights and instabilities when you look further, when you look closer.
In more ways than one, the book showed us how illusion and mystery and pretense convalesce into our lives triggering us to live a little more, perhaps for some, to survive and stay sane, "...dismiss that trinity of wonders and what's left, after all?" as Mrs. Delahunty points out once. She herself lived in her own fantasy, a fictional world of gardens and romance. But then, a time comes when even she must drift to wakefulness.
My House in Umbria is one of a two novellas in the book, Two Lives, about two different women whose lives were greatly altered by tragedy. It was made into a television film, produced by HBO, starring Dame Maggie Smith as Mrs. Delahunty. Now gone went the subtlety and instead the graceful prose of Trevor was evoked on the fine scenery and interiors. You'd be careful to mistake it for a nice travel film filled of nice places and nice people though.
The film boasts of actors with gravity in their performances and a beautifully made set and design. It almost mirrors the lovely premise of the book as Mrs. Delahunty steps out in a dramatic flair of clothing and presence. Everything about her, her looks and her charming villa, seems an embellished image, like straight out of her novels, which connotes how she blurs reality and imagination in her gestures.
It was less about the dark musings of her past and more into her dreams and heightened fancies but such is Maggie Smith's greatness as an actress that you can still see through her, through the walls of her niceties a somewhat wounded trembling creature who cannot escape her shattering past.
Quinty, an erratic and somewhat distrustful fellow, couldn't have been played better by Timothy Spall who most often shines on acting oddball characters while the charms of Benno Furmann playing the German young man hitch our little hearts before it got torn to little pieces later on by the allusions to his presumed actions.
The metaphor of the making an English garden under the Umbrian heat by the old man and the German boy is the thin thread that binds these survivors and a way of healing in the course of time. It may be noted that the film is more hopeful as a piece than the book. It dulls the bittersweet mood of the latter, in that there is something more to yearn for in life rather than just accepting that life merely goes on.
Mrs. Emily Delahunty, a mysterious and not entirely trustworthy former madam, quietly runs a pensione in the Italian countryside and writes romance novels while she muses on her checkered past. Then one day her world is changed forever as the train she is riding in is blown up by terrorists. Taken to a local hospital to recuperate, she befriends the other survivors -- an elderly English general, an American child, and a German boy -- and takes them all to convalesce at her villa, with unforeseen results.
Title: My House in Umbria
Author: William Trevor
Genre: Travel, Novella
Publisher: Penguin Books
Rating: ♨♨♨♨♨ ( 5 cups - A subtle picturesque piece about inner struggles and grief, Trevor creates a nice meld between the idyllic and harrowing. The written words alone make this book beautiful even with its imperfect characters.)
Film Title: My House in Umbria
Director: Richard Loncraine
Cast: Maggie Smith, Ronnie Barker, Benno Furmann,Timothy Spall, Chris Cooper
Release Date: 2003
Rating: ♨♨♨♨ ( 4 cups - Stunning and pretty on every nook and corner, it has the feel of a classic. The scenery complements the refined actors albeit the plausibility of the way the mystery was solved in the plot line is quite laying it on too thick.)