REVIEW – ‘Made in Italy’ stretches for narrative depth but can’t seem to find it

After the unexpected success of 2008’s guilty pleasure Taken, Liam Neeson found himself stuck in a casting pigeon hole, with the actor seemingly exclusively starring in generic action thrillers for the better part of the last decade. In a welcome change of pace, Neeson heads back to something a touch more subdued with the equally-generic familial drama/romantic drama Made in Italy, which is likely the closest any of us will get to a Tuscan getaway for some time yet.

An inoffensive timekiller of a film, Made in Italy stretches for narrative depth but simply can’t seem to find it, courtesy of a cliché-riddled screenplay that robs the film of its potential emotional resonance. With echoes of their own personal lives injected into the storyline, the film was clearly meant to stand as a cathartic experience for both Neeson and first-time writer/director James D’Arcy. Sadly, it’s little more than a case of style over substance.

Jack (Micheál Richardson, son of Neeson and the late Natasha Richardson) is a mid-20 something in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. After his troubled marriage fell apart, Jack threw himself in his work as the manager of an art gallery owned by the family of his soon-to-be ex-wife, Ruth (Yolanda Kettle). When Ruth abruptly announces her intention to sell the gallery, Jack pleads with his ex for some time to pony up the cash to buy the gallery.

With no other option in sight, Jack reconnects with his somewhat-estranged father, Robert (Neeson) and convinces him to sell the Tuscan villa left to both of them in his late mother’s will. A once-famous painter whose heyday is far in the distance, Robert begrudgingly agrees to his son’s plan and the two take off to Tuscany to flip the villa for a speedy sale.

Neither has returned to the family holiday home in the 15 years since the death of Jack’s mother, and, unsurprisingly, it’s now a dilapidated disaster zone, dotted with broken windows, cracked paint, and overgrown vines. While the house is filled with memories of happier times and a sprawling mural Robert once painted on the living room wall, Jack is determined to hastily renovate the villa to its former glory and sell it to whoever will take it off his hands.

It should come as no surprise to learn the fractured homestead is ultimately a tired, well-worn metaphor for Jack and Robert’s equally-broken relationship. In the process of restoring the villa, the father and son are ultimately repairing their splintered connection that’s been in free fall since the death of the family matriarch. Robert is still struggling with the death of his beloved wife and has essentially shut himself off emotionally ever since, while Jack is a typically lost 20-something without a real purpose in life.

The crux of the plot pertains to the obvious fact both Jack and Robert haven’t properly dealt with their grief and it’s not only led to both of them flailing through life, but it’s also caused them to grow further apart. Given Neeson’s wife and Richardson’s mother Natasha tragically died in a skiing accident in 2009, there’s naturally a personal connection to the story for both actors. D’Arcy’s screenplay was also inspired by the death of his father at a young age, making the film something of a therapy session for both actor and director.

It’s a mighty shame the film’s emotional core is surrounded by such a fluffy, by-the-numbers romantic storyline that stifles the raw emotion that should have permeated through this film. Made in Italy is so terribly predictable that by the time Jack meets a gorgeous Italian chef named Natalia (Valeria Bilello), you can essentially write the remainder of the film in your head. It’s a gooey, unnecessary subplot that ultimately shifts focus away from the real heart of the narrative. By the time D’Arcy seemingly realises he needs to return to the father-son plot he spent much of the first act establishing, the resulting resolution feels awfully rushed and inauthentic.

There’s naturally charming, genuine chemistry between Neeson and Richardson, but even with their own lives providing an attachment to the storyline, the emotional scenes of grief, guilt, and pain are surprisingly devoid of the power they truly need. Neeson’s dramatic chops haven’t been properly mined in years, and D’Arcy also fails to truly take advantage of the actor’s skills. Richardson can’t quite manage to make Jack even remotely likable and his quest to force his father to sell a treasured piece of family history just to save his own fledgling life is horribly selfish and misguided.

The real highlight in the cast proves to be a supporting turn from Lindsay Duncan as prickly, sharp-tongued real estate agent Kate who gives Jack and Robert a hard dose of reality. Even with the slightest purse of her lips, Duncan manages to steal every single scene and, frankly, I would rather have watched a film centred on her experiences dealing with hopeless, out-of-their-depth home-owners. Bilello tries her best to elevate Natalia above the one-dimensional character on the page of D’Arcy’s script, but he offers her little more than a generic love interest whose only purpose is to help the male protagonist find his zest for life again.

If nothing else, Made in Italy is a gorgeous postcard of the beautiful majesty that is Tuscany, with the film mostly shot in natural light through Mike Eley‘s sumptuous cinematography. With international travel an impossibility for lord knows how long, the film provides the only escape to the Italian countryside any of us can manage right now. For a film born of such real-life inspiration, Made in Italy should have been an intimate portrait of love, loss, and reparations. Instead, it’s an oddly light experience that leaves little impression.

Distributor: Madman
Cast: Liam Neeson, Micheál Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Lindsay Duncan, Yolanda Kettle, Gian Marco Tavani, Helena Antonio
Director: James D’Arcy
Producers: Pippa Cross, Sam Tipper-Hale
Screenplay: James D’Arcy
Cinematography: Mike Eley
Production Design: Stevie Herbert
Costume Design: Louise Stjernsward
Music: Alex Belcher

Editing: Mark Day, Anthony Boys
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: 13th August 2020 (Australia)