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Spotlight on: Summer's Lease

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Summer's Lease DVD Cover Martyn Friend's Summer's Lease

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:" -- William Shakespeare

In dire need of a vacation in the Italian countryside, Molly Pargeter (Susan Fleetwood, sister of Mick of Fleetwood Mac fame) falls in love with a villa for seasonal lease named La Felicita in the Chianti region of Tuscany. Getting husband Hugh (Michael Pennington) to go along with her and their three daughters may prove to be a trial, however; he's got a bit on the side waiting for him in London.

When Molly's father, the dashing and libidinous Haverford Downs (John Gielgud, in a Emmy-winning role) discovers Hugh's secret, he uses this leverage to get himself included on the trip, with the idea that his magazine column ("Jottings by Haverford Downs") could use some livening up.

It's impossible to tell, from the libertine persona he cultivates, whether what he writes is fact or fiction, but Gielgud gives this potential lecher a touch of class and pathos that makes him sympathetic and charming, even when he speaks of having "rogered all over Europe" with an ex-paramour he reacquaints on the trip.

His attempts to rekindle romance with her are all the more touching, given his oblivious innocence, when she can't seem to place him in her memory -- even once he's told her his name. Even though the main story of Summer's Lease (adapted by John Mortimer from his novel) resides with his character's daughter (whom he refers to as "Mollycoddle"), Gielgud's performance carries it along during the slow parts, of which there are several.

Marketed as full of "INTRIGUE and MYSTERY," Summer's Lease plays more like a character study and travelogue; the latter especially so, given the film's focus on the beauty of the surroundings and the attractions available for tourists (like the Piero della Francesca Trail, where one can see four of the master's works, including the one considered the greatest small painting in the world, "The Flagellation").

Summer's Lease does have some mildly intriguing aspects to it, especially regarding the mysterious S. Kettering, who supposedly owns the rental, but whose presence is only felt by cryptic notes left throughout the kitchen, and by the strange requests ordering the Pargeters to follow a specific routine -- not to mention the strange set of headlights that reappear in the driveway nightly. And what of that other cryptic message celebrating "B. lost and gone forever"?

This beginning owes some debt to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story "The Copper Beeches," which has been left open on the master bed and which Molly reads at one point. (Coincidentally, both Gielgud and Pennington have portrayed Sherlock Holmes: Pennington starred as a cryogenically frozen Holmes revived in the modern day, while Gielgud's run on radio, with Ralph Richardson as Dr. Watson and Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty, resulted in one of the best "Final Problem" adaptations I've had the pleasure to hear.)

While Summer's Lease is never going to be called a "classic" by anyone not trying to sell it, it does have a certain charm that make it go by smoothly and entertainingly. (The film is broken up into four "episodes" on two discs, creating ready-made stopping points.) Director Martyn Friend builds suspense as new facts are discovered about the strange goings-on -- including a surprising murder -- and the mystery itself proves to be somewhat gripping, though ultimately unsatisfying. Relatively speaking, it is barely solved at all, and little-to-nothing is done about it, but the characters, local color, and acting of the principals serve to make it a pleasant way to pass four hours.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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