Tottering slowly on the heels of Ladies In Lavender comes My House In Umbria, another tediously tasteful vehicle for Dame Maggie Smith. Set amid the pastoral beauty of Italy's countryside, Richard Loncraine's HBO effort - shot before Wimbledon but only now receiving a theatrical release - may seem topical thanks to a terrorism-connected subplot. But don't be fooled: it's as relevant as a decade-old copy of Reader's Digest, and about as exciting as a hot cup of cocoa.
Smith plays Emily Delahunty, an ageing writer of romance novels whose cosy ex-pat life in Italy is rocked when she and a group of fellow train travellers are caught up in a terrorist bomb blast. Emerging miraculously unharmed, our heroine generously invites the other survivors - among them a retired English general (Ronnie Barker), a young German (Benno Furmann) and an American girl who lost both her parents in the explosion (Emily Clarke) - to mend their traumatised minds and broken bodies at her handsome country villa.
"THE END RESULT IS STULTIFYING"
Emily's love of a good yarn inspires her to fabricate stories for her sundry guests, imagining a romance between Furmann and the general's daughter and even believing herself to be in love when Thomas Riversmith (Chris Cooper), the orphaned girl's no-nonsense uncle who arrives to escort her back to America. Thomas, however, roundly rebuffs her advances, shattering the delicate illusions that sustain Emily's lonely and rather tragic life.
The menopause is a ripe subject for dramatic exploration, but Loncraine's film - based on a short story by William Trevor - is so airless and mannered that the end result is stultifying. Naturally the scenery is gorgeous and Smith delivers another example of flawless character acting. Watching her in action, however, you can't help wondering why we only really celebrate our actresses when they already have one foot in the grave.