Emily Delahunty (Maggie Smith) is an aging romance novelist who has rewritten her own life. From a cruel circus of a childhood, during which her parents auctioned her off for £20, to a peripatetic young-womanhood that stranded her in Marrakech, to the Italian villa where she looks down on groves of olives, writes her best-selling bodice-rippers, and drinks perhaps a little too much grappa, she improves on hard edges and stark reality by obscuring them in mist and flowers. “Happiness,” she tells us, “is often an illusion, but what’s wrong with that?”
What indeed? My House in Umbria, adapted for television by Hugh Whitemore from a novel by William Trevor, leaves us wondering. It also violates every rule of thumb for TV movies. It moseys along as though nobody had a job to get to. There is no sex except in memory. Almost all the violence is either offscreen or dreamy-surreal. And those who are guilty will not be punished. Is this any way to fight a war on terrorism?
Because an act of terror is at the center, if not the heart, of Umbria. Emily is on her monthly shopping trip by train to Milan, scoping out the other passengers in her compartment—families, lovers, strangers—when a bomb goes off. We later learn that it wasn’t supposed to go off when it did, so that the wrong people end up dead. But then the wrong people have been ending up dead ever since the twentieth century decided that it was all right for more civilians to die in wars than soldiers. Umbria is about the handful who survive the bomb, who leave the hospital for Emily’s villa even as the Italian cops, in the agreeable person of Giancarlo Giannini, try to figure out what happened.
Emily, as her loyal factotum (Timothy Spall) explains, is happiest and best at taking care of other people. And they need it here. There is the General (Ronnie Barker), an English widower who lost his daughter in the explosion. And Werner (Benno Fürmann), the young German photographer who lost his translator lover. And especially Aimee (Emmy Clarke), an 8-year-old American girl who lost both her parents and her voice. In the sublight, a mute Aimee paints nightmare pictures, the opposite of Emily’s romance novels. But when her uncle the entomologist (Chris Cooper) comes to fetch her, we’ve reason to believe she’s better off in Italy, where she is not just another ant.
Richard Loncraine (The Gathering Storm, Band of Brothers) directs these proceedings as if he were looking over his shoulder at either Merchant or Ivory: A woodsy rendezvous is happened upon by accident; conversations are overheard on telephone extensions; clues show up unencrypted in convenient dreams; and, like the violence, at least one complete change of mind is so well-bred as to occur off-camera. Still, most flummoxing to an American audience will be the escape from justice and the casual forgiveness. It is, of course, a tribute to Dame Maggie that we end up rooting for Emily’s version of the world rather than our own, and that we would rather live in Italy.
Although she made a name for herself without ever trading on her mother’s and is absolutely smashing as Nan Astley in BBC America’s Victorian-era miniseries Tipping the Velvet, you are going to want to look at Rachael Stirling for her bloodlines too—she is so obviously Diana Rigg’s daughter. While I don’t know if she can back-flip the bad guys like her mother, she has the same big eyes and small nose and there probably aren’t three such complexions in the world. I spent the first half-hour merely marveling, until I had to think about the developing love affair between Nan, a seaside ingenue among the oysters in surprising Whitstable, and Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes), a music-hall performer who impersonates males.
Adapted by Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary) from the novel by Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet wants to tell us all about lesbianism in the 1890s, but without scaring the horses. Nan will join Kitty onstage; Kitty will throw her over for what she believes is a safer marriage to a man (John Bowe); Nan will descend to prostitution on the streets and then be kept by the decadent widow Diana Lethaby (Anna Chancellor) till she is reacquainted with the idealistic social worker Florence Banner (Jodhi May) and her tongue-tied socialist brother, Ralph (Hugh Bonneville). All this, wonderfully, is much more like an MGM musical than like The Well of Loneliness.
• Razing Appalachia (May 20; midnight to 1 a.m.; Channel 13) tells the story of how one small town in West Virginia did battle with a coal company that would have strip-mined it out of existence, the same town where more than 50 years ago the U.S. government actually dropped bombs on a union.
• The Kid Stays in the Picture (May 22; 9 to 10:35 p.m.; HBO) is everything you ever wanted to know about Hollywood producer Robert Evans, and then of course more.
• Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy (May 22 and 29; June 5, 12, and 19; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is Daniel Yergin’s look at globalization, which is slightly more cynical than many of the people he interviews, including Dick Cheney and Lee Kuan Yew of hot-to-trot Singapore.
• Our Town (May 24; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime) is the Thornton Wilder warhorse, directed by James Naughton and starring Paul Newman as the Stage Manager, that briefly wowed Broadway. No attempt here to make a movie; it’s filmed stage business and will show up on public television in the fall. Not bad at all if you really have to see it again.
• Russia: Land of the Tsars (May 26 and 27; 9 to 11 p.m.; the History Channel) leads us by the enthralled eye from Prince Vladimir in the tenth century to the advent of Lenin in the twentieth, with slave labor and secret police and Siberian exile even before there were Communists, not to mention Mongols on horseback and palaces like cotton candy.
My House in Umbria
Sunday, May 25; 9 to 10:45 p.m.; HBO.
Tipping the Velvet
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, May 23-25; 10 to 11 p.m.; BBC America.