As little old ladies go, Joan Plowright is a pip. With her regal manner, powerhouse pearls and an irrepressible dignity, she remains as captivating in old age as she was many decades ago when she was Laurence Olivier's bride and the belle of the English stage.
Old age is very much the subject of the charmingly frumpy, occasionally goofy drama Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. Sometimes veering into the madcap, colorful overstatement of Britcoms targeted at the blue-rinse crowd, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is saved from its worst impulses by the incandescent allure of Plowright.
Mrs. Palfrey is summarily dropped off by her taxi driver in the brutal big city manner, with her load of luggage on the doorstep of London's Claremont Hotel, a shabby residence for a coven of geriatrics.
At this and other junctures, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont makes its point that the old are the world's missing sock, something that disappears in the dryer at some point with no one bothering to check where it's gone.
Mrs. Palfrey has sought out the Claremont as a way to make her own way in the world and gain some privacy.
Her relations are happy to oblige.
A grandson at the British archives refuses to visit her or even return her phone calls. And the appearance of her adult daughter, who calls her mother "my duty," explains everything we need to know about Mrs. Palfrey's desperate need to escape.
The other elderly residents of the Claremont are largely in the same boat, forgotten by family and whiling away their time bickering, nosing into each other's business and catching nightly reruns of "Sex and the City" on the "telly." If this were a horror film, the needy, clinging, overly made-up elderly women and crusty men decamping each morning, afternoon and evening in the Claremont dining room would turn out to be Rosemary's Baby ghouls after Mrs. Palfrey's flesh or soul.
Instead, they turn out to be merely desperate for a little companionship in their shared holding pattern until death.
Light comedy and tear-tugging drama are more the order of the day in a film not too proud to use schmaltzy music, death, adorable old people and hunky young ones to elicit our sympathy.
Mrs. Palfrey's salvation from the Claremont's loneliness comes in the form of 26-year-old struggling writer Ludovic Meyer (Rupert Friend), who rescues her from a fall on the street. Ludovic becomes her friend, a substitute grandson where her own has disappointed her miserably.
Despite his long-haired, sensitive, guitar-strumming hunkiness, Ludovic has a handicap equivalent to Mrs. Palfrey's old age: He is poor.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont's charmingly simple, straightforward story concerns created, rather than biological families, and shows how Ludovic becomes a kind of soul mate for a widow who has lost hers.
Plowright does a fine job alerting us to the indignities and anxieties of elder behavior, from Mrs. Palfrey's shyness about taking her medicine to her longing for her departed husband and her mild horror at the elderly companion who gets soused on their Mason Lodge date.
Director Dan Ireland, who in 1996 made the underrated biopic The Whole Wide World about Conan the Barbarian creator and pulp writer Robert E. Howard, has treated friendship as a balm for loneliness before.
In his latest drama, as warm and humble as an old sweater, Ireland again coasts on small charms and the simple truth that the elderly are not dead yet. They are merely the only ones in our culture who seem to be contemplating its possibility and the preciousness of life so many of us take for granted.
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