Adapting “Under the Tuscan Sun,” writer-director Audrey Wells spices up Frances Mayes’ best-selling memoir in a way that honors the soul of the piece while creating memorable big-screen dynamics.
The 1996 book's elegant, poetic prose celebrates the romance of self-discovery through immersion in a foreign place — specifically, the hilly sun-drenched region of Italy and the tumbledown, 300-year-old villa that Mayes and her partner, Ed, lovingly renovated.
Wells’ script is more insistently about love in all its manifestations as well as its folly. She also addresses matters of faith and serendipity, the power of women’s friendships and the resilience of the heart, and in Diane Lane, she has a warm and likable protagonist.
The eminently watchable Lane, fresh off her searing, Oscar-nominated performance in “Unfaithful,” again demonstrates her appeal to men and women alike, though her full-blooded portrait of an intelligent, sensuous woman will have particular resonance for female audiences. “Under the Tuscan Sun” allows her to explore a more sympathetic, identifiable character than in her previous film. Wells, too, is delving into more accessible emotional territory than in her flawed “Guinevere.” All elements click in “Sun,” a shimmering, deeply felt film. Fueled by the must-see factor among fans of Lane and of Mayes’ book, “Sun” will shine at the fall box office.
Raising the stakes
Wells astutely heightens the drama of Mayes’ discovery: While the author and her partner searched diligently through real estate before choosing the villa Bramasole, here Frances is newly single and buys the Cortona property on an impulse. She’s a San Francisco writer shellshocked from a brutal divorce; her best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh, perfectly wisecracking and compassionate), believes she’s “in danger of never recovering.” Patti gives her a needed push out of the crossroads, and soon Frances is traipsing through the cobbled streets of Tuscany and impulsively buying an old stone house with an olive grove.
The film is very much about the ways we create our families, and in her new aloneness, Frances is surrounded by vivid characters, some invented for the screen, some expanded upon from the book. Her adopted clan includes Katherine (an arresting turn from Lindsay Duncan), a 50-ish Brit in showy hats and high heels who worked with Fellini as a teenager and can’t quite move beyond that golden moment.
Closer to Bramasole, Frances’ immediate family consists of her comical contractor, Nino (Massimo Sarchielli), and his “team of experts” — three Polish workers (Valentine Pelka, Sasa Vulicevic and Pawel Szajda).
Vincent Riotta delivers a lovely performance as Frances’ real estate agent, Martini, a kind man who is attracted to Frances but a devoted husband. He and Lane share an especially tender scene in which he calms her doubts about the project she’s undertaken and her fears of being alone.
By far the spiciest addition to the source material is dreamboat Marcello (Raoul Bova, suitably smoldering), whom Frances meets on an antique-hunting expedition to Rome. Their ultraromantic, movie-ish idyll is a jarring departure from the down-to-earth tone of the film, but it makes sense in light of the way things play out between them.
Shooting in Italy, DP Geoffrey Simpson captures the region’s warm light through all the seasons and, more impressive, depicts the transformation from Frances’ initial, tourist’s-eye view to the outlook of someone at home. There also are top-notch contributions from designers Stephen McCabe and Nicoletta Ercole and an unobtrusive score by Christophe Beck.