SOMERSET Maugham was a master storyteller, and many a filmmaker has been grateful to him. In The Letter, one of my favourite black-andwhite melodramas, based on a Maugham story, Bette Davis plays a plantation owner’s wife in pre-war Malaya who covers up her murder of a lover by pleading self-defence. In Up at the Villa (Sunday, 8.30pm, Movie Greats), an exotically moody and defiantly old-fashioned romantic thriller based on a Maugham novella, Kristin Scott Thomas is an English widow whose chance flirtation with an impoverished violinist leads to an absorbing tale of suicide, scandal and intrigue. Director Philip Haas ( The Music of Chance) lets Maugham do most of the work: the story unfolds with mechanical precision and loose ends are neatly tidied up. All Haas has to do is pile on the gorgeous Florentine backgrounds. Sean Penn is fine as an American playboy-adventurer, and the mainly English cast is first-rate. But no one would guess Mussolini’s fascists are about to take over.
The Way Back (Friday, 6.30pm, Starpics) is Peter Weir’s magnificent epic about seven prisoners who escape from a Soviet gulag in Siberia at the beginning of World War II and set out on foot for India. A lucky few make it in the end. The story is barely credible and Weir is on record as saying The Way Back is essentially fictional’’. But there is no doubting its power and visual grandeur, and as a tribute to the courage and suffering of the victims of Stalinist terror it ranks with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, based on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel. The central figure, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), is serving 20 years as an enemy of the people after his wife, under torture, has testified against him. It is hard to say which is more gruelling, the horrors of the gulag or the privations of the journey, but the film has passion and conviction. Weir brings it to a close on a note of hope and thanksgiving. It was his first film after Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, another tale of men pitted against the elements.
One of the key films of the 1960s was Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, about a fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who is caught up in a murder mystery set against the background of swinging London. Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (Monday, 8.30pm, Movie Greats) is a homage and a reinvention, in many ways surpassing the original in political sophistication and visual style. John Travolta is Jack, who specialises in sound effects for trashy porn films. Out recording one night, he hears a tyre blow out and sees a car swerve off a bridge into a river. Among the occupants is a prostitute (Nancy Allen), whom Jack rescues, and a drowned politician. With echoes of Chappaquiddick and the Kennedy assassination, Blow Out is an engrossing commentary on post-Watergate America.
(M) ★★★★ Friday, 6.30pm, Starpics
(PG) ★★★ ✩ Sunday, 8.30pm, Movie Greats
(M) ★★★★✩ Monday, 8.30pm, Movie Greats
Sean Penn and Kristin Scott Thomas evoke Somerset Maugham in