There is a distinct genre (or subgenre, perhaps) of films in which women have their apparently happy (often married) lives completely wrecked (generally by an unfaithful husband) and then go off to find themselves. Under the Tuscan Sun, the focus of this review, unquestionably falls into the genre.
While often uplifting in the end, there is a serious and very real discussion to be had about these films and the actual message which they impart. If the woman ends up with a new man is the film suggesting that women can only be happy if they’re in a relationship? If the woman ends up happy but alone, is the film suggesting that she has some sort of internal defect? What is the right way to represent a happy, independent, well-adjusted woman in film?
I am not entirely sure that I have the answers to all of these questions—I’m not even sure that there is any agreement about the answers—but as I see it (and I am clearly of the wrong gender), Under the Tuscan Sun, whatever other faults it may have, does a pretty good job exploring the issue even if it doesn’t get all the right answers.
Written and directed by Audrey Wells (and loosely based on Frances Mayes book), Under the Tuscan Sun stars Diane Lane as Frances, a woman who has undergone the exact sort of traumatic event described above. When the movie opens, the happy, well-adjusted Frances is attending a book party for a former student only to quickly have her entire marriage fall apart. After a bit of despair, two friends—Patti (Sandra Oh) and Grace (Kate Walsh)—give her a nice Tuscan vacation to take her mind off her problem.
Somehow, some way, Frances ends up buying a horrifically run down Tuscan villa and sets about fixing it. Naturally, as she fixes the place she also sets about fixing her life. And that is really the heart of the movie and where our big questions come in.
Frances is not just running away by buying a place in Tuscany, she’s looking for something, even if she doesn’t know what, and the film spends its time following her as she works it all out. She looks for her new life within the villa restoration, within the friendships she forms with her contractor and his employees, within the lives of her neighbors, and in her own search for love.
In fact, the film spends so much time on all her various attempts to be happy that by 90 minutes into this nearly two hour film, it all starts to sag under its own weight. Frances’ search may be thorough, and that may be why I think it’s a pretty good representation, but it certainly isn’t always shown in the most engaging ways.
Under the Tuscan Sun is aware of its own sticking to formula, and that too is one reason why it works. In one of the wisest moments in the film, Patti asks Frances over the phone if she’s met “him” yet. Not having met anyone, Frances responds with a “who,” and Patti explains that she’s asking Frances about the guy Frances is going to meet and if she’s met him yet (she hasn’t). There has to be a guy Frances falls for eventually, it’s just that sort of film.
For all its being aware of the conventions, however, Under the Tuscan Sun still manages to fall prey to some of them. In short, I don’t know if the final representation of Frances is a good one, but I think that much of her journey of self-discovery is good. Frances is definitely happy at the end of the movie, but is she happy in “good” way or is she happy for all the wrong reasons? I don’t know. Audrey Wells definitely does her best to give Frances a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B, which almost feels like an attempt to appease the audience as much as it does a natural outgrowth of Frances’ search.
One of the more problematic aspects of the movie is the supporting character of Katherine, played by Lindsay Duncan. Frances’ entire idea of staying in Tuscany comes from Katherine who is shown to be this strong, smart, independent woman. By the end of the movie though, while Katherine may have some good answers, she is proven to have just as many problems as Frances, if not more. Frances has been living up to her ideal of Katherine and not the real Katherine, and while that certainly makes Katherine a human being, it also completely undercuts everything towards which Frances has been working. I don’t know if that works out to be a positive message or not, all I know is that by the end of the movie this incredibly strong character is little more than an empty shell.
What the film is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is beautiful to look at and that beauty shines through in this Blu-ray presentation. Tuscany is shown to be absolutely gorgeous (as are the other parts of Italy we see), and the rich hues present in the transfer make it seem the idyllic location Frances would have it be. The transfer is also free of scratches, dirt, and other imperfections. Grain hasn’t been overly removed from the movie and there are lots of small details present in the house and on characters’ faces. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack is, if not terribly full, certainly a good complement to the movie. The surrounds do come alive during a terrible thunderstorm but generally are present more for basic ambiance than anything else. Free of imperfections and well-mixed, it does exactly what it needs to do and nothing more.
The Blu-ray release is lacking, however, when it comes to bonus features. There is a commentary track from Wells as well as a couple of deleted scenes and an older behind-the-scenes featurette which runs slightly more than nine minutes. Semi-illuminating and semi-frustrating (some of what is apparently supposed to come across in the film doesn’t), it is little more than a run of the mill look at the making of the movie.
There is a lot which Under the Tuscan Sun does well, but one of those things is not, in my estimation, its ending. The movie to that point has chosen to not be one big, happy, everything will be all right affair. Before the credits roll though it backs out of that with one schmaltzy moment too many. Is it, as I asked above, a positive representation of a free and independent and smart and worldly woman? I would say that for the most part it is but it’s not something I feel with enough conviction to strongly defend my opinion. I will, however, say that the on the whole the film is more good than bad and worth watching for its look at some gorgeous country and some good performances if nothing else. It is the journey in Under the Tuscan Sun which is worth taking, not necessarily the destination at which the film arrives.