You can’t help but feel the presence of the late Natasha Richardson in virtually every frame of Made in Italy, the directorial and writing debut of actor James D’Arcy. Starring Liam Neeson and his son (with Natasha) Micheál Richardson, the film is a true life-imitates-art experience, as the pair portray a father and son picking up the pieces twenty years after the death of the family matriarch. It’s easy to picture the two men going through a lot of the exact same emotions back in 2009 when Natasha passed away after a skiing accident when Richardson was just 14.
Here, he plays Jack, a soon-to-be divorcée who is managing his wife Ruth’s art gallery in London. When Ruth announces that her family is selling the property, Jack blanches and immediately thinks of selling his abandoned family home in Tuscany to get the funds to buy the gallery for himself. It doesn’t take much arm-twisting to get Jack’s struggling artist father Robert (Neeson) on board, and the pair are soon off to Italy to check out the ol’ homestead.
In the 20 years since anyone has set foot in the place—following his mom Raffaella’s passing, Jack moved back to England with his dad—the house has deteriorated completely. There’s a weasel in the bathroom, a tree in the living room, and a broken-down Vespa in the hall. The villa, though (as they say) does have good bones, and local realtor Kate (Lindsay Duncan) is optimistic that it can fetch a pretty penny once it’s cleaned and renovated.
From there on out, there’s not a beat of Made in Italy that doesn’t follow the tropes inherent in every movie of this genre. Indeed, it’s little more than a paint-by-numbers mash-up of 2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun and the 1986 Tom Hanks comedy The Money Pit. Sure enough, we meet the local contractors who say everything can be fixed ‘no problem’, then get introduced to the comely villager Natalia (Valeria Bilello) who is not only single but darn-near Jack’s age, and later realize we’re slowly building to the inevitable father-son breakdown/confrontation over never having sufficiently dealt with Raffaella’s death all those years ago.
How, then, do we explain the fact that Made in Italy—well… works? Credit Neeson and Richardson’s relationship (and the all-too-close-to-home plot) for injecting the film with a verisimilitude that keeps it afloat. And even though D’Arcy’s script could have used a another round (or twelve) or polishing, he more than makes up for it with his direction. Sure, the stunning Tuscan vistas provide plenty of eye candy, but he also keeps the pace up throughout and proves he knows how to frame a shot well without being distracting.
Along with the catharsis that it (no doubt) provided for both Neeson and Richardson, Made in Italy is far better than it has any right to be, thanks to the performances its leads offer up. That little bit of “extra” elevates the film out of its clichéd muck to become something quite memorable, and even though virtually every plot point is telegraphed from the outset, the father-son bonding journey still manages to feel fresh in their capable hands. It can’t have been an easy film to make, but what is easy is imagining Natasha being very pleased and proud of her men.