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Can’t afford an Italian vacation this year? PBS’s new series Hotel Portofino won’t exactly substitute for the real thing, but this visually rich 1920s-set period drama set on the Italian coast offers soothing escapism that will appeal to fans of shows like Downton Abbey and The Durrells in Corfu.

The English flock to Italy in ‘Hotel Portofino’  

Lily Frazer wearing a bathing suit and large hat in 'Hotel Portofino'
Lily Frazer as Claudine Pascal in ‘Hotel Portofino’ | Courtesy of © Eagle Eye Drama Limited 2021

Set in 1926, Hotel Portofino focuses on the Ainsworth family. Bella (Natasha McElhone) and Cecil (Mark Umbers) are British expats who run a hotel catering to the English travelers flocking to Italy during the interwar years. Living with them are their son Lucian (Oliver Dench), a would-be artist and World War I vet struggling with what would today be called PTSD, and their daughter Alice (Olivia Morris), a widow raising her daughter alone after her husband died in combat. The Ainsworths have a posh pedigree, but financially they’re struggling. Money issues are a source of tension throughout the series, particularly between Cecil and Bella, whose nuanced, complicated relationship is one of the more interesting things about the show. 

The large ensemble cast also includes Louisa Binder as Constance, a young woman with a secret who takes a job as a nanny of Alice’s daughter; a delightful Anna Chancellor as Lady Latchmere, a straight-laced hotel guest; and Assad Zaman as Anish, a doctor and close friend of Lucian’s. Lucy Akhurst plays the snobbish Julia, who arrives at the Hotel Portofino with her daughter Rose (Claude Scott-Mitchell) in tow. She and Cecil hope to make a match between Lucian and Rose. Lily Frazer is the free-spirited Constance, an American dancer who arrives at the hotel with her shady companion. Other characters include a fading tennis champ and his wife, a gracious Italian count, a corrupt local official who interferes with the Ainsworths’ business, an Italian maid who is having an affair with Lucian, and an English cook who can’t make heads or tails of the local cuisine. 

‘Hotel Portofino’ delivers romance and a dash of mystery  

Hotel Portofino, which was filmed on location in Italy and Croatia, is gorgeous to look at. The camera lingers on the coastal cliffs, rocky beaches, and sun-dappled city streets. The hotel’s interiors are worthy of a spread in a slick shelter magazine. 

The picture-perfect setting makes up for some of the show’s deficiencies. With just six, hour-long episodes, Hotel Portofino is stuffed with too many characters, some of whom are unfortunately underdeveloped. There’s an interesting story to tell involving Alice and her life as a war widow. But the show addresses her situation only glancingly, instead opting to primarily paint her as uptight, conniving, and jealous of her brother’s potential chance at happiness. We learn even less about Paola (Carolina Gonnelli). She seems to exist only to eventually be thrown over by Lucian in favor of either Rose or Constance. 

Between Lucian’s various flirtations and a covert affair for Anish, Hotel Portofino doesn’t lack for romance. There’s also a dash of mystery when a purported Rubens owned by the Ainsworths vanishes. The show also touches on more serious subjects in its portrayal of the rising threat of Fascism. Signor Danioni (Pasquale Esposito) is a scheming local official who is sympathetic to Mussolini. He doesn’t hesitate to use his power to influence what happens in town, and the Ainsworths quickly discover that their Englishness does not insulate them from his attempts at extortion. Several people (including an LGBTQ character who is a leader in the antifascist resistance) predict what the shifting political winds will mean for those who don’t fall in line, and it’s nothing good. 

PBS series is entertaining despite flaws 

Natasha McElhone standing outside in 'Hotel Portofino' on PBS
Natasha McElhone as Bella Ainsworth in ‘Hotel Portofino’ | Courtesy of © Eagle Eye Drama Limited 2021

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With its melange of love triangles, clandestine couplings, art theft, and extortion attempts (to say nothing of the looming threat of dictatorship), Hotel Portofino may have bitten off more than it can chew. But for those content to sit back and just enjoy the view, there’s plenty to enjoy. And there’s more to come. Some key plot points are left unresolved at the end of season 1, but the show – which debuted on BritBox in the U.K. earlier this year – had already been renewed for a second season, meaning a return to trip to Portofino is guaranteed. 

Hotel Portofino premiers Sunday, June 19 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS. 

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