Last week one of the great writers in the English language died at age 88 in Somerset. William Trevor’s novels and short stories afford unwavering gazes into all things human and, as is true of all fine stylists, his style is elegantly transparent. Writing with unsentimental empathy and wry humor of the extraordinariness of unremarkable lives, Trevor’s works are set in both England and his native Ireland, and he is considered by many to be in the company of Maupassant and Chekhov. Among those paying tribute, Joyce Carol Oates tweeted, “William Trevor is one of the great short story writers…beautifully composed, lyrical, understated prose”, and in a review years ago Graham Greene wrote of an early Trevor collection that it was “the best since Joyce’s Dubliners“. Trevor was shortlisted four times for the Man Booker Prize and won the O. Henry Award four times and the Whitbread three.
Perhaps because tone and nuance are so integral to his writing, translating Trevor’s work to film has proven a daunting task and only a few of his works have made it to the screen. In 1990 Trevor’s co-adaptation (with Michael Hirst) of his novel Fools of Fortune for a film directed by Pat O’Connor was an uneven exercise, and in 1999 he co-adapted his novel Felicia’s Journey with Atom Egoyan, whose direction produced more faithful results.
Arguably the most successful film version of a Trevor work is the 2003 treatment of his 1991 novella My House in Umbria. Directed by Richard Loncraine (Band of Brothers, The Gathering Storm) the production was an HBO original movie, and for it Maggie Smith deservedly won the Emmy for Best Actress.
After surviving a terrorist attack on an Italian train line, writer Emily Delahunty (Smith) opens up her home and solitary life in the Umbrian countryside to a trio of stranded survivors. She soon forms friendships with each, but develops a special attachment to the young orphan Aimee (Emmy Clarke). When Aimee’s distant American uncle (the fine Chris Cooper, miscast but not hopelessly)—a tightly-wound, emotionally aloof scientist—arrives to retrieve the girl, Emily strives to convince the man that Umbria is Aimee’s rightful home. Hugh Whitemore’s screenplay reflects the same dedication to original sources on view in his work with other challenging projects such as Stevie, 84 Charing Cross, and Breaking the Code, and the wondrous locations in Umbria—essential to this film’s success as a tale of spiritual renewal—are intoxicatingly rendered in Marco Pontecorvo’s cinematography. Timothy Spall (Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech, Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films, and Oscar-nominated for his title role in Mr. Turner) is superb as Quinty, Emily Delahunty’s property manager and longtime mainstay.
Mrs. Emily Delahunty (“…although strictly speaking, I have never been married”) gives Smith a role outside the trademark parameters that have tended to define her later career options, and the performance gleams with fierce intelligence, delicate grace notes, and a rich maturity of experience. Mrs. Delahunty exists both within the narrative and occasionally—as its narrative voice—outside it, a dynamic and evolving character with a mysteriously checkered past who believes both in digging toward the truest veins of any story and in the redemption of illusion and imagination. A woman of the world who has transmuted her early years of physical and mental abuse and a long series of abandonments into a remunerative career as a romance novelist, we initially find her as a catalyst for the recuperation of the survivors she takes in, but as the film progresses she too comes to understand and manage in a new way her own lost faith, lost love, and lost security.
As the backstory threads of Mrs. Delahunty’s life mesh with these relationships, Trevor’s story insists on a balanced view: sometimes there is survival without healing—there are certain losses and traumas and regrets that cannot be salved. Mrs. Delahunty knows how escapism has made her own life bearable. “Illusion came into it”, she says. “Of course it did. Illusion and mystery and pretence: dismiss that trinity of wonders and what’s left, after all?” But in opening her home and herself to helping the trio of inmates rehabilitate their lives she begins to insist less on illusion and more on a genuine miracle of healing, of love and security offered, taken, and shared. Few, if any, living actors can convey such complex, rueful irony, and win the viewer’s acceptance of this degree and quality of transformation, but when Smith voices Emily’s new hope and conviction we believe it: ”There had been a terrible evil…but in this little corner of Italy there was, again, a miracle…Three survivors out of all the world’s survivors had found a place in my house. One to another they were a source of strength…Dare we turn our backs on a miracle?”
In Trevor’s world human beings can be wounded and vulnerable and yet not weak, beaten but not vanquished. He never tries for specious sympathy or extends a promise that all will be well when it won’t be, but he always credibly and very beautifully demonstrates the dignity and tenacity of the human will. As Emily Delahunty reflects, “Perhaps I will become old, perhaps not. Perhaps something else will happen in my life, but I doubt it. When the season’s over I walk among the shrubs myself, making the most of the colours while they last and the fountain while it flows.” My House in Umbria—synthesizing Trevor’s indelible novella and one of Maggie Smith’s most unforgettable performances—suggests that even if no world-altering miracle occurs at the house in Umbria, and no one is completely healed, the daily renewal of life through the mysterious power and grace of goodness can be miracle enough.
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Netflix DVD, Amazon, and select streaming sites)