Liam Neeson has hunted down bad guys and utilized his “very particular set of skills” all across the globe. His latest film “Made in Italy” sets him down in the heart of sumptuous Tuscany. But this time he isn’t up against terrorists, human traffickers, or rogue cops. Instead he’s forced to face a dilapidated estate, a ton of pent-up grief, and a brittle relationship with his estranged son. The terrorist were puny by comparison.
“Made in Italy” is the directorial debut for British actor James D’Arcy and I have to admit, I’m a sucker for these kinds of movies. It’s a well-made family drama with a dash of humor and a misty-eyed final act that may be predictable but that justifies its emotional payoff. That’s because D’Arcy gives us characters we can care about. Yes, sometimes they do stick too close to conventional scripting, but they earn our empathy through grounded portrayals and a keen sense of humanity.
Micheál Richardson (Neeson’s real-life son) plays Jack, the manager of a bustling London art gallery owned by the parents of his soon-to-be ex-wife Ruth (Yolanda Kettle). As a result of their messy divorce, Ruth’s parents decide to sell the gallery leaving Jack high and dry. Desperate to buy it for himself, a cash-strapped Jack will have to convince his jerk of a father Robert (Neeson) to sell their Tuscan country villa left to them by their deceased mother/wife. The problem is they aren’t what you would call ‘close’.
So father and son head to the beautiful Tuscan countryside and find the once stunning estate, neglected and vacant for 20 years, in desperate need of repair. Their delightfully snarky real estate agent Kate (Lindsay Duncan) informs them that if they don’t fix the place up they’ll never turn a profit. So Robert and Jack begin restoring the house, unpacking (predictably) years of emotional baggage along the way. Buried grief resurfaces and cloudy memories are brought into focus as the family’s history with the house is revealed.
D’Arcy smartly keeps things from getting too heavy until they need to be or too whimsical therefore undercutting the drama. And while the Tuscany backdrops are easy on the eyes, D’Arcy doesn’t milk them dry. DP Mike Eley admires the scenery without gawking, even having some fun with the notoriously arresting locations.
It’s impossible to watch Neeson and Richardson and not think about the real-life reverberations. In 2009 their wife and mother Natasha Richardson died in a tragic skiing accident. This material has to hit home for both of them and you sense it in several scenes. But instead of fully tapping into those true experiences, the movie relies too heavily on a handful of clichés. Many of them come through Jack’s budding romance with a local restaurant owner named Natalia (Valeria Bilello). She adds some needed local flavor and is a welcomed presence. But Natalia never rises above being your standard love interest.
Rough patches aside, James D’Arcy’s behind-the-camera debut works where it needs to the most. I had no problem latching onto the two lead characters, believing their feelings of loss, and rooting for their inevitable reconciliation. Yes, some scenes are woefully overwritten and everyone (and I do mean everyone) has their moment to unload their past sorrows. But D’Arcy still manages to deliver a satisfying heartwarmer while Neeson reminds us he has more to offer than just headshots and hip tosses. “Made in Italy” opens this weekend on VOD.