With Judi Dench and Maggie Smith chewing up the scenery and snagging Oscar nominations right and left, Joan Plowright has become the Jan Brady of British dames. A marvelous actress, she's unfortunately mostly relegated to grandmother roles or aging shrews, but occasionally gets her moment in the spotlight. In the otherwise dreary Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Plowright outshines everything else in the film.
Director Dan Ireland (The Whole Wide World) offers yet another tepid British import with unremarkable direction and a threadbare narrative, along with an engaging lead actress. Based on the novel by Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress), this unabashedly maudlin film manages to offer some graceful observations about the loneliness of old age before drowning in sentimentality.
Recently widowed, Sarah Palfrey (Plowright) moves into the Claremont, a resident hotel where old Brits go to eat marmalade, watch Sex in the City and die in obscurity. One day she accidentally meets aspiring writer and all-around hunk Ludovic (Rupert Friend), whom she ends up passing off as her grandson to the other residents. Ludo and Sarah discover they have much in common and develop a May/December friendship filled with bittersweet, sometimes patronizing epiphanies about love, aging and finding the family you need. Inevitably, it all slides into the standard tearjerker.
It's clear the film was made on an extremely limited budget, the production values akin to the no-frills elegance of Masterpiece Theatre. Ireland captures none of the story's urban London setting and instead confines most of the action to hotel lobbies, tiny apartments and nondescript parks.
Though smart enough to reference such kindred films as Harold And Maude and Brief Encounter, Ireland presents his story of intergenerational friendship with none of their wit or sophistication. He plays everything much too seriously but with no sense of reality. Ludovic is presented as an impossibly handsome busker who recites William Blake and types his short stories on a manual typewriter while conveniently house-sitting in a choice London flat. He's charming, infinitely kind and able to spontaneously serenade Mrs. Palfrey with her favorite old song. In other words, he's the type of man who only exists in romance novels.
What saves Mrs. Palfrey from becoming a long, hard slog through molasses is the film's attention to detail. Though the script lacks finesse, there are surprising moments of insight and tenderness. Beneath the mush is a subtle commentary about the marginalization of the elderly.
Plowright is marvelous as the title character, biting into Mrs. Palfrey with gusto while pulling back just enough to keep things believable. Friend is winning enough, but his Ludovic is as implausible as he is perfect. The supporting cast is filled with colorful old coots who mug for the spotlight but are upstaged by Dame Plowright. Only Anna Massey, as a tart-tongued resident, holds her own.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is an earnest love letter written to the elderly on the cheapest of Hallmark cards. It's predictably genteel, inoffensively manipulative and occasionally well observed. Your grandmother will love it.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].