Film & TV

Television Series Review: ‘Hotel Portofino’

Nothing to watch except stunning scenery
BY Joe Bendel TIMEJune 14, 2022 PRINT

Not Rated | 6 episodes | Period Drama | 2022

The Ainsworths have designed their Italian Rivera hotel to be the perfect spot for the English smart set to vacation, but they are not nearly as smart as they think they are. To start with, they are British citizens in Italy, at a time when Mussolini’s Fascists are on the rise.

The Ainsworths try to maintain political neutrality, but the local political boss’s shakedowns make it difficult in writer-creator Matt Baker’s six-episode “Hotel Portofino,” which makes its broadcast premiere on PBS.

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Lily Fraser in “Hotel Portofino.” (BritBox)

Hotel in Fascist Italy

Running the English-speaking Hotel Portofino is Bella Ainsworth’s passion, whereas her wastrel husband Cecil merely considers it a usual excuse to ask money from her wealthy father. She adamantly insists that is no longer an option, so Cecil looks for other dodgy methods to raise funds.

Mr. Ainsworth also hopes to secure a marriage between their son Lucian and the pretty but meek daughter of his well-heeled old flame, Julia Drummond-Ward. Lucian is resolved to doing his duty, but his mother has reservations. After all, that is exactly how she ended up with a cad like Cecil.

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Mark Umbers (foreground) in “Hotel Portofino.” (BritBox)

Over the course of six episodes, Lucian and his fellow World War I veteran Anish Sengupta flirt with the local anti-Fascist underground, despite the potential consequences. At the same time, Cecil’s slimy father hatches a scheme with a guest to pass off a mediocre painting from the old Ainsworth family estate as a genuine Rubens.

Consequently, Madame Ainsworth is even more vulnerable to the extortion and bullying of corrupt Signor Danioni, who expects her to keep filling his outstretched palm, or he will shut down the hotel on a fabricated pretense.

There is a long tradition of ensemble hotel dramas, such as the various adaptations of Vicki Baum’s Weimar-era “Grand Hotel” or Arthur Hailey’s “Hotel.” Like “Hotel Portofino,” they generally weave some criminal subterfuge from the guests among the personal melodrama of the staff.

The problem with Baker’s series is the lack of urgency. Viewers just never feel like most characters are in any peril, even though some of the locals most certainly are. Largely, this is a factor of shallow characterization.

A Dull Lot

Natascha McElhone is charming as Bella Ainsworth, but she hardly does much except fret over staffing issues, until the fifth episode. Arguably, the star of the show is Mark Umbers, who is entertainingly sleazy playing Cecil, until his bad behavior takes an unforgivable turn, which totally dampens the mood of the show.

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Natascha McElhon in “Hotel Portofino.” (BritBox)

Sadly, the rest of the Ainsworths are a rather dull lot, but so are the Drummond-Wards, so maybe their scions are well-matched.

Fortunately, Anna Chancellor and Lily Frazer add some energy and attitude as two rather sympathetic hotel guests: prim Lady Latchmere, who grows less snobby over the course of her holiday, and Lily Frazer, the secret lover of Cecil’s ethically-flexible art dealer.

The intrigue involving Signor Danioni and his Black Shirts is promising, but Baker and series director Adam Wimpenny never vividly recreate the fear and paranoia of Italian fascism’s early days.

Likewise, the skullduggery revolving around the questionable Rubens painting is rather clever, but it must compete for time with Lucian’s insufferable angst and his friend Sengupta’s predictable self-discovery.

Nice Scenery and That’s About It

However, the show has one ace up its sleeve: the spectacular Portofino scenery. Arguably, this could be the most picturesque series setting since Patrick McGoohan’s classic “The Prisoner.”

It is highly likely to spur tourist interest in the Greater-Genoa and the Italian Rivera amongst PBS viewers. The sets and costumes are also lush and lovely. Everything looks great on the surface, but it is all fairly shallow.

Ironically, “Hotel Portofino” is set in 1926, the year Oswald Mosley was elected to British Parliament as a Labour Party member, six years before he founded the British Union of Fascists.

The British perspective on fascism would be an interesting area for a promised second season to explore, but it is not clear Baker has the political insight and sophistication to do it justice.

So far, “Hotel Portofino” is mostly a hodge-podge of elements from “Upstairs Downstairs”-like British historical dramas. It is watchable, but its full six hours probably will not justify most viewers’ time and patience when it premieres on PBS (following its streaming debut on Britbox).

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(L–R) Oliver Dench, Olivia Morris, Anna Chancellor, Natascha McElhone, Mark Umbers, Adam James, and Rocco Fasano in “Hotel Portofino.” (BritBox)

‘Hotel Portofino’
Director: Adam Wimpenny
Starring: Natascha McElhone, Mark Umbers, Anna Chancellor, Louisa Binder, Elizabeth Carling, Oliver Dench
Not Rated
Running time: Season 1- 6 episodes
Release Date: June 19, 2022
Rated: 2.5 stars out of 5

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit
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