Can’t afford a vacation to Italy this year? The new PBS series Portofino Hotel won’t exactly replace reality, but this visually rich 1920s period drama set on the Italian coast offers a soothing escape that will appeal to fans of shows like Downton Abbey and The Durrells in Corfu.
The English flock to Italy in ‘Hotel Portofino’
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Set in 1926, Portofino Hotel focuses on the Ainsworth family. Bella (Natasha McElhone) and Cecil (Mark Umbers) are British expats who run a hotel catering to English travelers flocking to Italy during the interwar period. Living with them are their son Lucian (Oliver Dench), a would-be artist and World War I veteran struggling with what would today be called PTSD, and their daughter Alice (Olivia Morris), a widow raising her daughter alone after the death of her husband. in battle. The Ainsworths have a posh pedigree, but they struggle financially. Money issues are a source of tension throughout the series, especially between Cecil and Bella, whose nuanced and complicated relationship is one of the most interesting things about the show.
The large ensemble cast also includes Louisa Binder as Constance, a young woman with a secret who takes a job nannying Alice’s daughter; a charming Anna Chancellor as Lady Latchmere, a straight-legged hotel guest; and Assad Zaman as Anish, Lucian’s doctor and close friend. Lucy Akhurst plays snobby Julia, who arrives at the Portofino Hotel with her daughter Rose (Claude Scott-Mitchell). She and Cecil hope to make a match between Lucian and Rose. Lily Frazer is the free-spirited Constance, an American dancer who arrives at the hotel with her sleazy companion. Other characters include a declining tennis champion and his wife, a gracious Italian earl, a corrupt local official who interferes with the Ainsworths’ affairs, an Italian maid who has an affair with Lucian, and an English cook who cannot not make heads or tails of the local cuisine.
‘Hotel Portofino’ offers romance and a touch of mystery
Portofino Hotel, which was filmed on location in Italy and Croatia, is stunning to watch. The camera lingers on coastal cliffs, rocky beaches and sunny city streets. The hotel’s interiors are worthy of a run in a slick cover magazine.
The perfect frame for the picture makes up for some of the show’s shortcomings. With just six one-hour episodes, Portofino Hotel is riddled with too many characters, some of which are sadly underdeveloped. There is an interesting story to tell involving Alice and her life as a war widow. But the show only addresses her situation at a glance, choosing instead to paint her primarily as uptight, conniving, and jealous of her brother’s potential chance at happiness. We learn even less about Paola (Carolina Gonnelli). She seems to exist only to eventually be overthrown by Lucian in favor of Rose or Constance.
Between Lucian’s various flirtations and a secret affair for Anish, Portofino Hotel does not lack romance. There is also some mystery when an alleged Rubens belonging to the Ainsworths goes missing. The show also touches on more serious topics in its portrayal of the growing threat of fascism. Signor Danioni (Pasquale Esposito) is a scheming local official who is sympathetic to Mussolini. He doesn’t hesitate to use his power to influence what happens in town, and the Ainsworths quickly discover that their Englishness does not insulate them from his extortion attempts. Several people (including an LGBTQ character who is an anti-fascist resistance leader) are predicting what the changing political winds will mean for those who don’t conform, and it’s no good.
The PBS series is entertaining despite its flaws
With its mixture of love triangles, clandestine couplings, art thefts and extortion attempts (not to mention the imminent threat of dictatorship), Portofino Hotel may have bitten off more than he can chew. But for those who are content to sit back and simply enjoy the view, there is plenty to enjoy. And there is more to come. Some key plot points remain unresolved at the end of season 1, but the show – which debuted on BritBox in the UK earlier this year – had already been renewed for a second season, which means that a return trip to Portofino is guaranteed.
Portofino Hotel Prime Ministers on Sunday, June 19 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.
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