From her screenplay for The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996) to her directorial debut with Guinevere (1999), Audrey Wells has created films with strong female protagonists. She continues this thematic preoccupation with Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) featuring a main character that goes on a journey of self-discovery in Italy. Based on the bestselling 1996 memoir of the same name by Frances Mayes, the film is a warm and inviting romantic comedy that attempts to deviate from some of the conventions of the genre.
Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) is a professor of literature living in San Francisco with her husband. Her bad reviews of other people’s books comes back to haunt her when a writer harboring a grudge hints that her husband has been having an affair. During the messy divorce, and understandably upset over his betrayal, she sells her half of their house rather than pay up via alimony. Frances moves into a noisy apartment building and tries to figure out what to do with her life. She suffers from writer’s block — not just with her book, but with her life. Patty (Sandra Oh), her best friend and support group, is unable to go on a ten-day trip to Tuscany because of her upcoming pregnancy. So, she gets Frances to go in the hopes that a change of pace and scenery will provide her with a fresh start.
Before she knows it, Frances is on a bus full of gay people in Italy with the tour guide telling everyone her life story. She spots a charming little villa on the tour and decides to get off the bus. She becomes enchanted with the place, meets the owner and decides to buy it. To say that the house is fix-it-upper opportunity is a mild understatement but Frances plugs away, renovating the house and, in the process, her life.
Under the Tuscan Sun was a nice change of pace for Diane Lane, fresh from her role in the dark, erotic thriller, Unfaithful (2002). She is quite good as a newly independent woman trying to start her life over. The gorgeous Lane looks absolutely radiant and brings a lot of charm to the role. She shows a real knack for light comedy as well and is not afraid to look silly or vulnerable.
It also doesn’t hurt that director Audrey Wells surrounds the stunning Lane with a picturesque, postcard perfect Italian countryside. Every frame is filled with resplendent scenery and everyone eats delicious looking food. It is a shameless love letter to Italy. A more cynical person might say that this film is just one long ad for the tourism board of the country. It works. Under the Tuscan Sun really makes you want to go there, discover your very own villa and escape from it all.
Under the Tuscan Sun is reminiscent of Enchanted April (1992) in that it also features women getting away from dreary past lives and moving to Italy to gain their independence and start their lives anew. In terms of plotting and dialogue, Tuscan Sun is pretty standard fare but it is quite entertaining, features a winning performance by Diane Lane and is handsomely photographed.