The setting for this elegant drama directed by Philip Haas (Angels and Insects) and based on a novella by W. Somerset Maugham is Florence in 1938. While the rest of the world totters on the brink of chaos, the wealthy Anglo-American community in Italy enjoys the regular rhythms of affluence with a surfeit of luncheons, parties, and dances.

Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a recently widowed English woman, is staying at a seventeenth century villa thanks to the kindness of some friends. Quite penniless, she has just received a marriage proposal from Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), a wealthy friend of hers who has been appointed Governor of Bengal.

Also demonstrating their interest in Mary are Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), a charming American playboy, and Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies), an Austrian refugee who fled to Italy to escape the Nazis. In one evening, Mary spurns the advances of one and takes the other as a lover for a momentary pleasure. However, this choice results in one man's death and Mary's reliance upon the other.

Andre Maurois has observed: "In literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others." This sophisticated and nuanced screen adaptation of Maugham's novella by Belinda Haas unveils the different shades of love and the ways we can unsettle our lives through impulsive sex. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a convincing performance as the conflicted Mary while Sean Penn is smooth and silky as the American philanderer whose credo is unbridled hedonism.