There is a fine tradition of “American women find themselves in Italy” films, from Only You (1994), Stealing Beauty (1996), Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), and Chasing Liberty (2004) to Eat Pray Love and Letters to Juliet (both 2010) but less films about men doing the same. The romantic setting of an Italian villa has also recently featured in the beloved Call Me By Your Name (2017) and Normal People (2020). Now actor James D’Arcy (best known for playing Jarvis in the Agent Carter MCU-spin off series) has turned writer-director to tell a tale of an estranged father and son bonding over a dilapidated Tuscan villa. Liam Neeson and his real-life son Micheál Richardson play the father-son duo and their real-life tragedy (Richardson’s mother Natasha, who was an actress, died as a result of a skiing accident in 2009) dove-tails with the story and certainly gives emotional heft to what would otherwise be a feather-light film.

Richardson plays Jack, a young man going through a divorce and wanting to buy out their shared art gallery from his wife. In order to raise the money he needs, he heads to Tuscany to do up his late mother’s villa, hoping to achieve a quick sale. His artist father Robert reluctantly accompanies him. Local estate agent Kate (Lindsay Duncan) is horrified by the state of the place and tries to give them advice on renovation. Jack meets Natalia (Valeria Bilello) who runs a restaurant in the nearby town, who is going through her own issues with an ex-husband and daughter. The villa brings up lots of memories for Jack and Robert, as Jack’s mother died in a car accident nearby, with Jack in the car. Robert has painted a giant black and red mural on one of the walls, clearly an expression of grief and pain.

Of course we don’t know how ‘close-to-home’ the issues that are raised in the film are. Richardson has said in interviews that there were many uncanny coincidences between real life and the script, such as dealing with selling the Richardson’s family home in France where Natasha had grown up and where Micheál had many memories of his mother. In the film, after his wife’s death, Robert shuts down, sends his son away to boarding school, closes up part of the house that contains mementos related to her and barely mentions her again. Neeson’s late-stage career as an action star was launched with Taken in 2008 quickly followed by The A-Team in 2010 and The Grey in 2011, which roughly coincided with his wife’s death and he did seem to plough himself into a particularly prolific run of work. One can only imagine what it was like for Neeson and Richardson to ‘act’ grief, anger, bitterness etc on set when the parallels must have reopened some wounds.

So, you may go into this expecting a lightweight rom-com with beautiful scenery that will transport you away from real-life troubles, but it’s actually pretty upsetting at times. That doesn’t mean that Made in Italy is not funny – there is plenty of comic relief (including a weasel in the bathroom), and as it’s R-rated, a fair few F-bombs. I would have liked a bit more of the romance between Jack and Natalia, but the film focuses a lot more on the father-son dynamic and their changing relationship as they finally start to talk about long-buried trauma.

Neeson isn’t the most convincing ‘tortured artist’ I’ve ever seen, but Richardson is impressive in his first leading role. Neeson has recently co-starred with Lesley Manville (in Ordinary Love) and now gets to have some sparks of chemistry with Lindsay Duncan – two of the UK’s finest actresses and it’s great to see him having age-appropriate sparring partners in film. It also seems as though Neeson has recently pivoted back to independent dramas from big-budget action movies (although a look at his IMDb does show upcoming titles including The Trainer, The Revenger, The Escapist, Suspension and Retribution so I won’t speak too soon).

I am a sucker for an Italian (and if it’s set in Tuscany, all the better) escape film featuring a gorgeous old villa and a soupcon of romance, so I was definitely the target audience for this. It is refreshing to see a male take on a sub-genre which has been dominated by women-led stories and it will be interesting to see where James D’Arcy goes with his writing and directing career from here.

If nepotism and acting dynasties have to exist, then it is hoped that we at least get good actors out of it. The family business of the Redgraves has been traced back to the 18th century and Micheál is the latest to uphold the tradition. He is impressive here and raises enough curiosity to see where his career goes next. Made in Italy is a pleasant diversion at the moment, but don’t go into it expecting all sweetness and light, as grief is tackled in quite a raw and real way at times. It may appear on the surface as pure feel-good escapism, but there is some surprising depth to it. An interesting feature debut.

Rating: ★★★

Director: James D’Arcy

Writer: James D’Arcy

Cast: Liam Neeson, Valeria Bilello, Micheál Richardson