Over two decades ago, Emma left Russia to follow Tancredi Recchi, the man who had proposed to her. Now a member of a wealthy Milanese family, she is the respected mother of three. Although not unhappy, Emma feels confusedly unfulfilled. As cracks in the family façade appear, she is reawakened to the forces of passion and unconditional love.

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Tilda Swinton shines in overcooked melodrama.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Money, food, sex and betrayal are the key ingredients of this overcooked melodrama by Italian director Luca Guadagnino. It’s beautifully shot and superbly acted but the otherwise tasty dish is spoilt by hazy motivation and a highly contrived ending.

Set among Milan’s old-moneyed upper-class, the drama centres on an aristocratic family torn apart by events beyond their control, and one woman’s search for her identity. Tilda Swinton is excellent as the flawed heroine Emma, a Russian who’s married to a rich Italian industrialist. It’s a role tailor-made for her by the director/co-writer in their third collaboration following The Protagonists (1999) and the doco Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory (2002).

In the opening sequence, the patriarch of the Recchi family, Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) announces at his birthday party that he’s retiring and handing control of their textiles empire to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and Tancredi's son Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti).

Tancredi’s wife Emma dotes on Edo, their art student daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) and other son Gianluca (Mattia Zaccaro). After the old man dies, Tancredi retrenches staff to boost profits then decides to sell the business to a brash Indian/American entrepreneur, against the wishes of the idealistic Edo.

Emma is shocked initially when she discovers her London-based daughter is gay and in love with another woman, but doesn’t raise the issue with her husband, perhaps a sign that their marriage lacks intimacy. Edo introduces his mother to his friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef with whom he plans to open a restaurant. Emma dines at the restaurant where Antonio works, later tracks him down in the bucolic town of Sanremo, and they’re soon rolling in the hay, while birds twitter and insects buzz.

Why the almost instant attraction? Emma’s marriage may have gone stale but Antonio isn’t especially handsome, or witty or intelligent. True, the dishes he prepares look and taste sublime – food has rarely looked so sensual – but we’re left wondering why Emma would break her vows and risk her marriage for such a nondescript fellow and a plate of prawns. And how does Antonio feel about bonking his mate’s mother? We’re none the wiser.

Emma says she has no longer felt Russian since she moved to Italy yet she remains an outsider, with closed-off emotions beneath her unblinking facade, so one assumes the passionate lovemaking with Antonio is a liberating experience.

But her happiness is short-lived as a tragic accident causes shock, grief and guilt. Some may regard the third act twist, amplified by booming, operatic music, as a legitimate dramatic device but I found it a cheap trick designed to manipulate emotions.

The narrative unfolds in leisurely fashion, with lots of wide, slow tracking shots in the Recchi family’s opulent mansion, when a tad more urgency would have been welcome. Marisa Berenson looks like a waxwork from Madame Tussauds as Edoardo Sr.’s wife, and Maria Paiato is effective as the family’s housekeeper and ally of Emma’s.

Swinton has never looked so beautiful or luminous, shot in a highly flattering manner by director of photography Yorick Le Saux, and to my untrained ear her Italian and Russian sound flawless. I just wish we understood her motivations.

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1 hour 59 min
In Cinemas 24 June 2010,