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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.

Critic’s choice

(M) ★★★★ Fri­day, 6.30pm, Starpics

(PG) ★★★ ✩ Sun­day, 8.30pm, Movie Greats

(M) ★★★★✩ Mon­day, 8.30pm, Movie Greats

Up at the Villa

Sean Penn and Kristin Scott Thomas evoke Som­er­set Maugham in

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