Frances Mayes is a 35-year-old San Francisco writer whose perfect life has just taken an unexpected detour. Her recent divorce has left her with terminal writer's block and extremely depressed. Her best friend, Patti, is beginning to think that she might never recover. "Dr. Patti's" prescription: 10 days in Tuscany. It's there, on a whim, that Frances purchases a villa named Bramasole--literally, "something that yearns for the sun." The home needs much restoration, but what better place for a new beginning than the home of the Renaissance? As she flings herself into her new life at the villa in the lush Italian countryside, Frances makes new friends among her neighbors; but in the quiet moments, she is fearful that her ambitions for her new life--and new family--may not be realized, until a chance encounter in Rome throws Frances into the arms of an intriguing Portobello antiques dealer named Marcello. Even as she stumbles forward on her uncertain journey, one thing becomes clear: in life, there are second chances.
This film adaptation of Frances Mayes' best-selling memoir feels so schematic that only the depressed Frances (Diane Lane) is surprised by the events as they unfold. The story of self-discovery that Audrey Wells leads Frances, a writer, through is eminently superficial, though the director keeps the movie going with a steady, commanding hand. Ms. Lane initially gives Frances a calm and pleasant sunniness, though she is resigned to never finishing her book. She's attending a book signing early in the movie when she learns of her husband's philandering. When her best friend gives Frances a ticket to Tuscany, she grabs it. The trip is supposed to be pressure-free for Frances — it's a gay tour of Italy. She finds a new love anyway: a villa, Bramasole, that she buys on the spur of the moment. But Tuscany is not the soul-saver that Frances hopes for: the house's promises of romance and a new life in Italy don't burst into bloom like the sunflowers that are often in view. The lesson of "Sun" is that Frances needs to look closer at the big picture, and her avoidance of that raises questions about how perceptive a critic she must have been. Eventually, the movie feels Frances has suffered enough and slaps on a happy ending like a Post-it note, but it's not earned. — Elvis Mitchell
2003-09-26 | Elvis Mitchell | Read the New York Times Review of Under the Tuscan Sun