Though not exactly a 1920s White Lotus, Britbox series Hotel Portofino (hitting U.S. shores via PBS Masterpiece) is nevertheless an absorbing tale of wealthy, demanding hotel guests who arrive at a picturesque locale and end up learning a little something about themselves before they leave. There’s no murder here, but there are demanding mothers, marriages in peril, jealous paramours, and low-level celebrities (not to mention a Count). What more could you want?
Over six hourlong episodes, viewers are introduced to and then caught up in the drama within Hotel Portofino, a genteel establishment run by an English family: the luminous and capable Bella Ainsworth (Natascha McElhone), her useless husband Cecil (Mark Umbers), and their two adult children—young widow Alice (Olivia Morris) and the charming Lucian (Oliver Dench).
To start, the hotel’s guests include the high-stakes arrival of the beautiful Rose Drummond-Ward (Claude Scott-Mitchell), accompanied by her sour, scheming mother Julia (Lucy Akhurst), who is hoping that Rose and Lucian will like another well enough to fulfill their societal duties of getting married and combining estates. Meanwhile, a quiet and resourceful nanny, Constance (Louisa Binder), also arrives to look after Alice’s daughter, and bonds with the hotel’s cook, Betty (Elizabeth Carling) who was in service with her mother back in England.
Also staying at Hotel Portofino are Lucian’s best friend Dr. Anish Sengupta (Assad Zaman), the snooty Lady Latchmere (Anna Chancellor), her niece Melissa (Imogen King), the handsome aforementioned Count Albani (Daniele Pecci) and his son Roberto (Lorenzo Richelmy), tennis star Pelham Wingfield (Dominic Tighe) and his wife Lizzie (Bethan Cullinane), as well as a pair of Americans, Jack Turner (Adam James) and his companion, the singer Claudine Pascal (Lily Frazer).
It sounds like a setup for an Agatha Christie story, but it’s important to note everyone—guests do not come and go from the Portofino on a daily or weekly basis; the wealthy patrons are all in residence for the summer, meaning that though the show boasts a rather sprawling cast (full of dramatic possibilities), they stick around for a variety of tasty subplots.
This kind of series certainly isn’t new to the UK; similar productions have been setting their stories in beautiful European locations for awhile now, they just rarely embraced the settings fully beyond gorgeous shots of scenery. In many, the supposedly French or Italian or Danish characters just… speak English. With English accents. Hotel Portofino at least justifies its mostly English cast by setting its story specifically at an English hotel, and uses subtitles to allow Italian characters to speak in their own language (the English muddle through it themselves here and there). It also makes some light fun of the English “discovering” olive oil, and learning to embrace local food and seasonings beyond the treacle puddings of home.
In this way, Hotel Portofino—with its picture-perfect setting and charming cast—is a suitably soothing watch despite the fact that its 1920s setting also means that fascism is on the rise in Italy. Like the recent (and lovely) Durrells in Corfu, these series weave a darker thread into their sun-soaked Mediterranean stories to acknowledge both the shadows of the first World War (which haunts those who lost loved ones as well as those who survived) and the rise of a dangerous, violent political movement. Portofino is far more overt, though, and both that narrative and later episodes that focus on an expensive painting threaten to overturn the “kitchen drama” balance with plot-heavy machinations.
Still, these various aspects of Portofino largely work in tandem to create an amiable drama that is full of familiar beats (everyone has a secret, and money problems, and wants to marry for love), but is nevertheless highly satisfying. It also doesn’t overlook the amount of work done by the hotel workers to create idyllic moments for the guests; in one quietly pointed scene, Lucian, Rose, and Julia take a seaside respite to paint and picnic and enjoy the water, but most of what we see are Constance and Paola (Carolina Gonnelli) getting sweaty and exhausted setting it all up and packing it to go later.
If there is one major criticism to be made of the series, it’s that it doesn’t do enough to develop its Italian characters, including Paola (who is in love with Lucian), the Count and his son, as well as a nefarious local crime boss, Signor Vincenzo Danioni (Pasquale Esposito). The series could have used several more episodes to give us more of their stories and backgrounds; with such an enormous cast, even things like secret socialist meetings, personal revelations, and romantic flings feel too rushed.
Still, with its sapphire sea, abundance of dress whites and linen trousers, and jazz-infused score, Hotel Portofino makes for a relaxing getaway. It’s the kind of series that invites you to relax and spend some quality time basking in its well-coiffed drama—I simply wish we didn’t have to check out so soon.
Hotel Portofino premieres Sunday, June 19th on PBS Masterpiece.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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