New take on “‘Harold and Maude’-like friendship is well worth the visit
Let’s plow right into it. Joan Plowright failed to get Oscar’s attention with “Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont” because Judi Dench captured the “old person” slot. Lady Olivier doesn’t have the same “Look at me, I’m acting!” style that calls attention to itself. She’s so natural, it’s easy to forget she hasn’t lived the same life as Sarah Palfrey, even though she’s reached the same age.
In this predictably heartwarming tale of cultural exchange between age and youth, the widow Palfrey, not wanted by her daughter, moves into a residence hotel in London. After a lifetime as “somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother,” she wants to spend the rest of her days as herself.
The Claremont has seen better days, as have its guests a group of mild eccentrics played by a cast with an eternity of experience among them. The individual rooms couldn’t be more spartan if they were in Greece, so the residents look forward to sharing meals (but never tables) in the dining room and watching “Sex and the City” in the television room. They gossip about each other, but no one does anything worth gossiping about.
Mrs. Arbuthnot (Anna Massey) is the first to befriend Mrs. Palfrey and is the one who teaches her, “We aren’t allowed to die here.” Mrs. Post (Marcia Warren) is the interrogator, Mrs. Burton (Georgina Hale) the flamboyant one, Mrs. De Salis (Millicent Martin) the retired actress whose (probably gay) son (Michael Culkin) lives with her and is still active in the theater. Then there’s Mr. Osborne (Robert Lang), who hasn’t given up hope of female companionship.
Mrs. Palfrey has a grandson in London but he doesn’t return her calls. The other residents, never having seen him, refer to him as her “mythical grandson.”
Everything changes the day Mrs. Palfrey stumbles on the sidewalk outside the basement flat of Ludovic Meyer (newcomer Rupert Friend), a 26-year-old struggling writer who becomes her best friend and poses as her grandson when he visits her at the Claremont. He has such perfect manners and respect for age, not to mention the long hair of a drag queen who doesn’t want to wear a wig. The most surprising moment in the movie is the revelation that he’s heterosexual.
Ludo’s ex-girlfriend sees him with Mrs. Palfrey and refers to them as “Harold and Maude,” but there’s never any question of intergenerational romance. They merely fill gaps in each other’s lives and help each other with their problems. He gives her companionship, she gives him inspiration for stories. She also helps him mend fences with his estranged mother (Clare Higgins) and inadvertently plays Cupid, indirectly causing Ludo to meet Gwendolyn (Zoe Tapper).
Adapted by Ruth Sacks from a novel by Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress), “Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont” was directed by Dan Ireland, an all-American boy who seems right at home in London.
Less ambitious and less wealthy than Mrs. Henderson, Mrs. Palfrey lives modestly and makes small differences in a few lives. We can all learn from her homespun wisdom: “Always remember to make the most of every moment.” The opening narration tells us, “She came from a world of sensible choices.”
If you’re in the mood for this kind of movie, “Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont” is a sensible choice.
MRS. PALFREY AT THE CLAREMONT
Director: Dan Ireland
Cast: Joan Plowright, Rupert Friend, Anna Massey and Michael Culkin
Opens today exclusively at Landmark’s Inwood Theatre
1 hr., 48 min. Not rated.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, February 24, 2006.