Working herself into a comic pique, the peerless Australian export Davis (Barton Fink) is an unlikable, repressed, upper-class Englishwoman, Harriet Herriton, who habitually looks as if she has just been sucking lemons. She is at her most citrus-laced while visiting Italy, sourly telling a group of chattering Italians, "I don't care for the lot of you." She adds, "I'm English," as if this explains everything.
In a way, it does. This literate, tidy period film, an adaptation of E.M. Forster's 1905 novel of the same name, is about the blind insistence of the imperial British on esteeming their culture above all others—and the sometimes tragic-consequences of such ethnocentric pigheadedness. Here the consequences are dire indeed when Davis visits Italy to recover the infant son left behind by a sister-in-law (Mirren) who has died in childbirth. (Earlier in the movie the sister-in-law, widow of Harriet's late brother, creates a scandal by marrying a beautiful Italian youth half her age; he is the baby's father.)
Aided by a first-rate cast that also includes Helena Bonham Carter and Rupert Graves, director Charles Sturridge (Brideshead Revisited) has made a film that is gracefully wry and amusing, even if it errs on the side of preciousness. If Masterpiece Theatre is your cup of tea, haul out your teacup. (PG)