You have to admire the versatility of Natascha McElhone.
Better known as the wife of David Duchnovy in Californicationis heading the cast of Foxtel’s new period drama Portofino Hotelscreened a few weeks before his role in Paramount+ sci-fi halo.
Created by Matt Baker (Before he died, Professor T) the series is set in 1920s Italy, filmed both in Italy and in Croatia.
McElhone plays Bella Ainsworth, daughter of a wealthy industrialist and manager of the boutique hotel, described as “A very English hotel on the Italian Riviera”.
While the series opens with terribly Downton-esque music, you get the feeling he’s hoping for a similar ride. The family-run hotel sees wealthy Brits in ‘upstairs’ management roles and more than a few locals in ‘downstairs’ servant roles.
Guests are just as rich, allowing for both class-driven textures and the best outfits, more on that later.
It’s no wonder Bella runs the show. Her husband Cecil (Mark Umbers) has debts and a wet personality. he hopes handsome son Lucien (Oliver Dench) will marry money via host Rose (Australian Claude Scott-Mitchell), visiting with easily shocked mother Julia Drummond-Ward (Lucy Akhurst).
Viewers must be on guard as a parade of characters is introduced, including his daughter Alice (Olivia Morris), Dr. Anish (Assad Zaman) who was with Lucien when he was wounded in World War I, Italian aristocrats Count Carlo Albani (Daniele Pecci) and his son Roberto (Lorenzo Richelmy), the difficult host Lady Latchmere (Anna Chancellor), the visiting Americans Jack Turner (Adam James) and Claudine (Lily Frazer) as well as the cook Betty (Elizabeth Carling), the goalkeeper Billy (Louis Healy) and more.
Two other key roles include newly arrived nanny Constance (Louisa Binder) and city councilor Signor Vincenzo (Pasquale Esposito) who quickly establishes himself as Bella’s local nemesis.
Rippling beneath the pleasantries and melodrama is the nascent Fascist movement under Mussolini’s Italy. This is one of the most interesting aspects, even if only briefly mentioned in the first few episodes.
Much of the drama in the foreground is familiar stuff. Who has secrets? Who is getting intimate with whom? Backstories unfolding. Much of it has been done many times before, whether by Julian Fellowes’ hit series, some Merchant Ivory blockbuster, or even Agatha Christie: I kept waiting for a body to show up, leaving everyone as suspects.
That said, the wallpaper is heavenly. There are alluring coastal snaps, pastel buildings, cool aquamarine waters, that will make you want to book a Mediterranean holiday or resent being denied for two years. The costumes are so pristine it’s like they were just taken off the shelf for episode 1 (they’re not exactly “lived in”). If the experience is something out of a storybook, so is part of the dialogue.
Come for the scenery. Stay for the landscape…. and you will have a perfectly pleasant stay.
Hotel Portofino double episode on Tuesday 8 February at 8.30 pm on FOX Showcase.